Friday, 11 October 2013

Theatre review: Roots

"Everyone's so bored!" wails Jessica Raine, accurately. In Arnold Wesker's Roots at the Donmar Warehouse, Raine is Beatie, returning for a couple of weeks' visit to her family in Norfolk. We know it's Norfolk because everyone speaks in an accent that sounds vaguely Westcountry via Ireland with the occasional detour to Australia, and whenever actors sound like they're making the accent up as they go along it invariably turns out to be an attempt at Norfolk. And lo, Norwich and Diss get mentioned, so it seems I was right. Beatie now lives in London with her boyfriend Ronnie. Ian thought his name was actually Rani, but I put it down to that accent again, because if she was dating a rogue Time Lady it would probably have been mentioned. Then again, mentioning interesting things would probably go against the spirit of the play.

Ronnie or Rani is a Socialist and self-styled intellectual, and Beatie is full of his words of wisdom in his absence, despairing at her family's lack of interest in the world outside their little community. She turns up first at the house her sister Jenny (Lisa Ellis) shares with her husband Jimmy (Michael Jibson,) who married her despite her having a child by a man she refuses to name. This doesn't go anywhere but I thought I'd mention it because it's sort of like character development and I have to work with what I've got.

For her signature bake, Jenny makes a plaited loaf, which she just about gets out of the oven before it burns. The plait's a bit messy but it's a good bake. Moving to her parents' kitchen for the technical challenge, Beatie prepares a sponge cake, but after mixing the ingredients disaster strikes when her father (Ian Gelder) forbids her from using the electric oven. Meaning Roots fits into this year's theatrical meme of wasting eggs, and in the process wastes some butter, sugar and flour as well.
The traditional English afternoon tea was popularised in the 1850s by the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria's ladies in waiting. The Queen herself became a fan of these tea parties, and so the Victoria Sponge Cake was named in her honour.
Finally Beatie's mother (Linda Bassett) provides a showstopper of homemade savoury biscuits with a nice snap to them, although the cake is slightly collapsed on one side and has a soggy bottom, while I'm not sure a trifle even qualifies as baking at all. Meanwhile James Macdonald provides a good enough production, for what it's worth, because it's important to get a nice shiny glaze on your polished turd.

After all the baking Beatie lectures everyone for a while. Wesker bullied Terence Rattigan into obscurity when he first became successful, insisting the kitchen sink playwrights (this play goes all out, featuring two different sinks in two different kitchens) had made the old-fashioned playwrights irrelevant. Fortunately he was wrong and Rattigan continues to be revived to this day. Unfortunately for audiences, so does Wesker.

Roots by Arnold Wesker is booking until the 30th of November at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including two intervals.

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