This review was originally written for the Londonist
Exploring the fiery dynamics between a young upstart who’s moved to London and her family back home in rural Norfolk, ‘Roots’ at the Donmar is a play many Londoners will identify with. It’s set in the 1950s, when upstarts clambered atop chairs to preach about socialism but still, the clash between town and country is one that plays out in many a household today. Beatie Bryant thinks her family is backward and third rate; they find her moody and snobbish.
Thick Norfolk accents, which are decidedly (and distractingly) dubious at points, are the defining feature of a play that’s ultimately about language and finding your own voice, in spite of your family and your lover. The regional dialect is rich and wonderful, and often very funny. And it is the thing that both unites and divides Beatie (Jessica Raine) and her kin.
Linda Bassett is brilliant as Beatie’s mother. A master of her Norfolk tongue, and completely immersed in her mundane life, she’s tragic and comic all at once. A play divided into three parts, it’s the second focusing on the relationship between mother and daughter that’s the most interesting. Mrs Bryant wants small talk, Beatie wants profundity. They meet awkwardly somewhere in the middle.
Intimate domestic details are a highlight of a production that’s engaging, though far from gripping. The two women preparing water for a bath; Beatie creaming butter and sugar for a sponge; a family meal of liver and mashed potato actually eaten on stage. The everyday clothing and kitchenware are also enjoyable. The floral aprons, the stately brown colander, the pastel green enamel pan, various metal pails.
A so-called kitchen sink drama (this one boasts a couple of lovely Belfasts), pierced with the mad energy of the main protagonist, Roots is the middle play of an Arnold Wesker trilogy. It pivots around a person from the first play but, funnily enough, it’s only when Beatie is free of him that she starts speaking for herself.