Chicken Soup with Barley
by Arnold Wesker
Directed by John Dexter
The Belgrade, Coventry 7th July for one week
The Royal Court, London 14th July for one week
The Theatre Royal, Brighton 21st July for one week
First performance: 7th July 1958
"Slumped grinning in his chair Mr Finlay mumbles his heart out so movingly that we are unable to distinguish between the petrifying of his body and the greying of his soul. This is a great performance".
Kenneth Tynan The Observer 13/07/1958
Ada Kahn ........ Jacqueline Wilson
Bessie Blatt ........ Patsy Byrne
Cissie ........ Cherry Morris
Dave Simmonds ........ Richard Martin
Harry Kahn ........ Frank Finlay
Hymie Kossop ........ Henry Manning
Monty Blatt ........ Alfred Lynch
Prince Silver ........ Patrick Carter
Ronnie Kahn ........ Anthony Valentine
Sarah Kahn ........ Charmian Eyre
British theatre was at the start of an extraordinary upsurge in new playwriting. John Osbourne's 1957 Look Back In Anger at The Royal Court had sent shock waves through the establishment and the Court, under George Devine, was quickly establishing itself as the hub of the new wave, a genuine writers theatre. Not everything worked, not everything found an audience, and although actively seeking to support emerging talent with its 'Sunday Night' try-outs of young writers and directors the Court still had to be financially viable. One of Devine's many ideas was to reach out to the Reps, with a Festival to mark the 50th anniversary of the first provincial repertory theatre in 1908 by Horniman at the Gaiety, Manchester. The Court would supply the script and playwright and the Reps would produce the plays and perform first on home turf and then bring the production to The Court. Kudos for the reps and a way for the Court to test out some 'difficult possibilities' without going to the expense of mounting a full production. The Belgrade was one of only four regional theatres to take up the offer, much to Divine's frustration.
The play had been brought to the attention of the Court by Lindsay Anderson, having been given it to read by a young film student - Arnold Wesker. The Court were unsure - it was Jewish, had a communist heroine and spanned 20 years. Thus in the early summer of 1958 Wesker found himself literally being sent to Coventry, along with director John Dexter.
The play - a disintegration of a family set against the background of the disintegration of an ideology - starts in the years of idealism and the anti-Fascist demonstrations in the East End of London to stop Mosley and the Blackshirts and ends with Hungry and the bankruptcy of the Communist system.
Chicken Soup revolves around the lives of a Jewish immigrant family - the Kahn's and is highly biographical of Weskers own family and upbringing. Frank's original script shows how the name of the central character of the Mother, a dedicated communist, was changed from Lily to Sarah. Sarah Wesker, was Arnold's aunt, a well-known East End Trade Unionists.
The play opened on the 7th July at the Belgrade and a week later at The Royal Court, followed by a week in Brighton. The critics were highly impressed and that one week put Wesker, Dexter and Finlay on the theatrical map. All three would go on to have more success at The Court.
Chicken Soup was the first of a trilogy - the other two being; Roots and I'm talking about Jerusalem all later performed as The Wesker Trilogy at the Royal Court.