Actress Jessica Raine has been away from the stage for far too long, having swapped the tough, weird theatre roles of her past – my favourite was her environmentally conscious stripper in the NT’s ‘Earthquakes in London’ – for fame as the goody-two-shoes star of BBC teatime favourite ‘Call the Midwife’.
A bit of a shame (though probably not for her bank balance), but it’s great that her new stature means she can return to the stage with as prestigious a gig as this: a lead at pocket-sized powerhouse the Donmar.
Raine is radiantly charismatic as Beatie Bryant, the heroine of Arnold Wesker’s 1958 classic ‘Roots’. And she needs to be, because in other respects ‘Roots’ is a play that takes place in intimate gloom, as the London-dwelling Beatie traverses emotionally stultified homes of her Norfolk family, whom she is visiting as a prelude to their meeting the intellectual love of her life, Ronnie.
James MacDonald’s warm, dark production is really about two women: Raine’s free-spirited, emotionally prolific Beatie, who crackles with life, fizzes with mood swings, and pops with unguarded vivacity; and the wonderful Linda Bassett as her mother, Mrs Bryant, a woman of equal wilfulness but opposite expressiveness – she reacts to life with grim impassiveness, choking down her emotions, dourly freezing out those who annoy her, living her life in determinedly prosaic fashion, each utterance a statement of fact delivered in flat-as-a-pancake Norfolk vowels.
That both of them come out sympathetically is tribute to the timeless empathy of Wesker’s writing: Beatie can be obnoxious or hypocritical, but she’s so passionately in love with life that it’s hard to hold it against her; her mum’s pragmatism is often well-advised, and if she is irrevocably frozen inside, she is sadly a product of her environment.
Above all, Wesker’s play celebrates Beatie’s emotional and political awakening, whatever path it may lead her down. It is not an overtly political production, but it doesn’t need to be to remain potent – Beatie’s winningly guileless railings against apathy and consumerism chime exactly with much of the more positive stuff to have emerged from the likes of UK Uncut, and while it’s perhaps depressing to note how little some things have changed, Wesker’s faith in the young – as embodied by the incandescent Raine – is irresistibly heartening stuff.
By Andrzej Lukowski