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A CurtainUp London Review
Awake and Sing!
by Neil Dowden
As a social(ist)-realist dramatist, and co-founder of Group Theatre in 1931 (the theatre collective dedicated to dramatizing contemporary social-political issues), Odets may be seen as the forgotten — or at least neglected — forerunner of Arthur Miller. Of course, his work suffers in comparison with the dramatic richness and moral authority of Miller, but this vibrant ensemble production shows him to be much more than merely an outdated agit-prop dramatist. Even if Awake and Sing! creaks sometimes, the ideas remain relevant, the dialogue still fizzes and the hearts of the characters pump irrepressibly.
The Bergers are propelled by the indomitable energy of Bessie (Stockard Channing), a Jewish matriarch who is determined to protect the welfare of her family — whether they like it or not. In the midst of an unprecedented economic depression, with news of people being thrown on the scrapheap and family homes disintegrating, Bessie has become a domestic 'benevolent dictator'. She tries to stop her son Ralph (Ben Turner) seeing the girl he loves because she has no money, while when her daughter Hennie (Jodie Whittaker) becomes pregnant after a casual fling she immediately finds an unsuspecting Russian-Jewish immigrant (John Lloyd Fillingham) to marry her.
Bossing her amiable but ineffectual husband Myron (Paul Jesson) and her elderly Marxist father Jacob (John Rogan), while idolizing her hard-nosed wealthy businessman brother Morty (Trevor Cooper) and respecting the dodgy but successful gambling family friend Moe Axelrod (Nigel Lindsay), Bessie rules the roost. But with Jodie tiring of her wimpish husband Sam and the infatuated Moe pressing his suit, and Ralph increasingly inspired by his grandfather's advocacy of personal and political revolution, how long will the Berger family stick together?
The strength of Attenborough's punchy production lies in its convincing account of family dynamics. The Bergers are a close-knit family who shout and scream at one another, then the next moment are laughing together. However, we feel strongly the tensions and divisions between them, exacerbated by economic pressure, threatening to split the family apart. And there is a wider dichotomy between materialism and idealism which lies at the heart of Odets' message about the urgent necessity for radical change in society.
Tim Shortall's design — with its solid but faded furniture and washing on lines suspended over the front rows of the auditorium — evokes well the sense of a family trying to keep a decent home in the cramped conditions of a tenement block.
Stockard Channing lights up the stage as the formidable Bessie, with a strong yet graceful physical presence, alternating peremptory commands with acid put-downs. She gives a very funny performance, but also suggests without sentimentality the inner strain of a woman hardened over years of self-sacrifice and controlling others, who is becoming aware that she may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Nigel Lindsay makes a big impact as the aggressively cynical Moe, embittered by losing a leg in the First World War but not letting self-pity stop him making big bucks. Paul Jesson is a likeably passive Myron, Jodie Whittaker a selfish and fiery Hennie, and Ben Turner the frustrated Ralph who struggles to find his own way ahead. And John Rogan gives a delightfully warm, sympathetic performance as the eternally optimistic Jacob, who finds consolation in listening to records by Caruso— songs which carried an extra frisson on the day that another great Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, died.
To read about several American revivals of this play reviewed at Curtainup, see:
Awake and Sing at Berkshire Theatre Festival
Awake and Sing on Broadway (last year)
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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