Review – Chicken Soup with Barley – Royal Court

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For once, the Royal Court is doing, not a new show, but a revival, of Chicken Soup with Barley. This play, first performed in 1958, is about an East London Jewish family riding the wave from optimistic socialism to Pollyanna-ism. And based on the fact that this show has been revived and thus not to be given the slack I accord to new works, I ask, what was the point of this ill-natured, tedious show? There is actually some interest for me in watching people discuss socialism with stars in their eyes over a meal; but as this family and their friends goes from one rally to another, from proselytizing on a chair to motivating union members, I found myself wishing I could have left their party and gone to one where a conversation I was interested was happening. Maybe it was my fourth row seat; I really did feel like I was there, and I wanted to get away but was trapped by the feeling that something really interesting might happen that I’d miss if I snuck out early. More fool me.

To make it more miserable, this family really seemed to hate each other. Sarah Kahn (Samantha Spiro) spends most of the play tearing apart her good-for-nothing husband Harry (Danny Webb), and I found it painful to watch. It’s a profound lesson for her to teach her kids, Ada (Jenna Augen) and Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal), and later they jump right on the “dad is a waste of breathing room” bandwagon, telling him what he can and cannot do as if he is a child and deriding him as useless right at the dinner table. No wonder he just wants to sit alone and smoke a cigarette. I’ll give props to Spiro for her performance; she seemed very believable in her enthusiasm and unwillingness to confront harsh facts. However, Rosenthal flubbed his final scene, seemingly not able to handle the emotional transition (maybe this will clear up as the run progresses), while Augen didn’t seem very well rounded and was just silly in her first scene. Webb, however, was just astounding in a “performance of the year” kind of way as the gradually degrading Harry Kahn; but watching him erode in front of my eyes was a truly painful experience. I could not wait to see the last of the lot of them.

At the end of the evening, when I was praying for each scene to be the last, I was reminded of that Tolstoy chestnut about happy families. Sure, it’s the unhappy ones that are more interesting, but this particular brand of misery was just not my cup of tea (or bowl of soup). Give me Imelda Staunton and her accordion any day of the week; Chicken Soup with Barley is just to bitter to be enjoyable.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2011. It continues through July 9th.)

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