Being a Norfolk girl, Arnold Wesker’s Roots, the second in his trilogy of late 1950’s plays, is very dear to me. A Norfolk accent is notoriously difficult to perfect and, it was with this in mind, that I went to the first night preview at The Donmar with some trepidation. Totally unnecessary where the majority of the cast of this production is concerned, that is apart from Beatie, the youngest of the Bryant children, who has up-sticks and left for life in the big smoke. At this early stage in the play’s run, Jessica Raine had failed to perfect the accent at all. I’m hoping that by the time press night comes around, this will have improved because the character’s habit of clambering onto chairs and pontificating on what her London boyfriend, Ronnie, has to say on almost everything, jarred in the extreme.
This niggle, however, is the only one in what is a wonderful production by James Macdonald. Roots is a vivid portrayal of a rural, working class family, surviving if not really living when life dependent on the land is hard. They don’t have the time or inclination to worry about life outside their close-knit community, a fact that irritates the hell out of Beatie. She is now living in London and going out with Ronnie, a young socialist (based on Wesker himself), who believes that if something is broke then fix it. She spends her visit to the family preaching without practicing everything Ronnie tells her in order to raise them out of what she believes is their stupor. Her condemnations result either in wry amusement or mild anger rather than wonderment at her boyfriend’s beliefs but, despite this, everyone pulls out all the stops for Ronnie’s proposed visit.
This is a kitchen sink drama in every sense of the word and Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderful design perfectly captures Mrs. Bryant’s and her elder daughter, Jenny’s country kitchens. James Macdonald isn’t afraid to let much of the action do the talking, so we are privy to potato peeling, washing up and cake making often done in complete silence. This is a real family doing real every day chores.
The superlative Linda Bassett plays down-to-earth Mrs. Bryant to perfection. Everything she does on stage from making supper to filling a tin bath is eminently watchable. Funny, yet tough, you couldn’t wish for a better actress playing the Bryant matriarch. The supporting roles, especially Lisa Ellis as Jenny Bryant are also excellent and, once again, The Donmar stage is the perfect setting for an intimate, real life play.