Beautiful young dreamer Beatie Bryant (Jessica Raine) goes back to her Roots in James Macdonald’s revival of Arnold Wesker’s kitchen sink drama. This heartwarming tale of a girl’s search for her place in a changing world and coax her family out of the rut they are stuck in is stunningly brought to life at the Donmar Warehouse.
Everything about this production is finely tuned to perfectly capture provincial life in a sleepy 1950s Norfolk village. Bechtler’s design is subtly detailed and complimented by Hoare’s naturalistic lighting, evoking nostalgia for simpler times as the audience watches scenes lit by a flickering candle or rays of morning sunshine. The cast spend a great deal of time sweeping flagstone floors or preparing meals, the portrait of charming country idyll.
Into this serenity bursts Beatie, the youngest Bryant child, who left home for London to swap her floral dress and apron for new fashions and her potato peeler for high culture, encouraged by her boyfriend Ronnie. As she returns to her family home her accent creeps back, she picks up a comic, and her new-found, open-minded views seem suddenly out of place. In fact, they are not really her views at all but the socialist preachings of would-be academic Ronnie. While the Bryants prepare a feast for Ronnie’s hotly anticipated arrival a dread encroaches on the audience: as Beatie rattles off his speeches, beaming atop a kitchen chair, it becomes clear that she is his pretty little ideological project not his beloved fiancé. Add to this a death of a family friend, economic troubles and some barely concealed family scandal and the complexities of Wesker’s play become very interesting indeed by the time the family have slipped into their Sunday best.
Roots is extremely slow-paced which some may find tiresome but this is completely necessary both to reflect the pace of the Bryants’ quaint little life and to make the slow-building dénouement all the more shocking. The ending is a brutal but wonderful sucker punch of empowerment, liberation and feminism that makes the slower moments worth it.
Raine’s performance is outstanding and painfully relatable, culminating in the play’s perfect final line. Linda Bassett is moving as Beatie’s mother and David Burke gives a hilarious performance as doddery neighbour Stan Mann. The entire cast have great broad Norfolk accents (credit to dialect coach Penny Dyer) that add to the incredible authenticity of the play. Ideas of emancipation and the clash of ideology and reality provide much food for thought with a great deal of compassion. This is a gentle yet powerful rendition of Wesker’s Roots, still so relevant today, that must not be missed