Arnold Wesker’s Roots depicts the return of Beatrice ‘Beatie’ Bryant to her family home in Norfolk, following several years of her chasing her man Ronnie around London. To her dismay, the family has remained largely as it was left – stuck in its country ways, still concerned solely by the weather and the bus timings. Beatie has been desperately trying to broaden her mind in the big city, and is exasperated to come back to a place seemingly stuck in the past.
In the Donmar Warehouse’s wonderful studio space, designer Hildegard Bechtler encompassed the ‘kitchen sink’ nature of Wesker’s work by creating workable living spaces for the actors –and we audience in the upper circle were not disappointed by our view either. I’d clocked a large empty space above the beam that marked the end of the playing space, and was pleased that this black hole was used to project the sky – a simple concept, but without it I would’ve found myself concerned by the wasted area. Similarly, the appliances (sink, cooker, drain) all worked properly, so we weren’t concerned with poorly mimed steaming potatoes.
Living in this wonderfully created home, Jessica Raine (Beatie) had an excellent manic disposition; a fast inner life leaked out into every limb in a way that wasn’t distracted, but rather spoke true of her busy life in London. Holding her Norfolk accent with ease, whilst many other cast members seemed to slip a little, her end monologue was moving and engaging, not dissimilar to Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. That same concept of angst, a lost generation, and desperation for more was evident. However so was her clear understanding of Beatie’s relationship with her family – despite having spent years apart, they settled in with each other with familiarity.
Playing Beatie’s mother Mrs Bryant, Linda Bassett was incredibly strong throughout, and near enough carried the play with her back-and-forth interaction with her husband, obsession with the small details in her life, and weary frustration with her daughter. Similarly, Lisa Ellis (Jenny – Beatie’s sister) was quiet but not passive, exploring the understanding nature of the sibling with intelligence and heart.
Directed by James Macdonald, Roots is a remarkable insight into lost communities, stuck in their ways and resistant to too much change in post-war Britain. This production was long (2 hours with two 10 minute intervals), but did not drag by in any way – the characters were richly understood, making each act a journey which the audience followed, engaged in, and in some cases could relate too. The concept of a young woman trying to find herself but only being held back by her upbringing is not forgotten or old-fashioned. And the intimate yet detailed space of the Donmar complimented Wesker’s intricate writing perfectly.