Awake And Sing! @ Almeida Theatre, London

cast list
Stockard Channing
John Rogan
Paul Jesson
Jodie Whittaker
Ben Turner
Nigel Lindsay
John Lloyd Fillingham
Trevor Cooper
Keiron Jecchinis

directed by
Michael Attenborough
There are two roles that spring to mind when one thinks of Stockard Channing. One is Abbey Bartlet, First Lady to Martin Sheen’s President of the United States in The West Wing. The other is Rizzo, the hardest Pink Lady of the pack, in Grease.

It’s a testament to her acting ability that this considerable screen baggage slips from your mind the minute she delivers her first acid put-down as Bessie, the life-hardened matriarch of the Berger family, in the Almeida’s new production of Clifford Odets’1935 social drama.

The Bergers live in a cramped tenement apartment in the Bronx. Their son, Ralph, is dating a girl who Bessie deems beneath him and their daughter Hennie has committed an even worse crime in her mother’s eyes, getting pregnant after an ill-advised fling. So Bessie takes charge of both situations: obstructing Ralph’s relationship at every available opportunity and forcing Hennie into a marriage with a young Russian Jewish immigrant. Her husband Myron, an amiable but terminally passive individual, has little say in either matter. Even grandfather Jacob, with his Marxist ideals, prefers to stay shut in his room listening to his records than really engage with the family’s problems. Bessie is iron-minded and harsh but at least she makes things happen; she acts rather than talks (though she does a whole lot of that too).

Bessie sounds like quite the tyrant but Channing ‘s nuanced performance ensures that she does not come across as such, at least not completely, instead she paints her as a woman desperate for her children to have lives less blighted by hardship than hers, and unable to see that she is crushing their spirits in the process.

Channing’s is not the only strong performance in this ensemble piece. The uncommonly beautiful Jodie Whittaker hits the right blend of petulance and frustration as Hennie and she has a nice rapport with Nigel Lindsay as the fast-talking, cynical yet clearly smitten Moe Axelrod. John Rogan, wheelchair bound after an accident, instils Jacob with a sense of warmth that is occasionally lacking in this production.

Michael Attenborough’s production foregrounds the rich musicality of Odets’ language, the poetry of all those New York accents, but doesn’t quite surmount the dated feel of the play. That’s not to say that many of its themes about family life, and the way money and the lack of it can come to dominate every decision, don’t still resonate, they do. But there is a stiffness to the way the characters interact, and on more than one occasion it is impossible to ignore the weight of Odets’ political beliefs bleeding through.

There is much to admire in this production, it’s well acted and well paced, but while the narrative exerted a considerable hold, I struggled to connect with the family’s plight on an emotional level. It engaged my brain, but with the exception of a couple of well-handled moments, failed to engage my heart.

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