Was it wonderfully prescient and daring of Clifford Odets to work the word “awake” into the title of his 1932-35 drama Awake and Sing!? Possibly not. Possibly even that man of big ideas could not conceive that his play would be resuscitated more than 70 years later in front of London’s most narcoleptic reviewer.
Andrew (for it is he) was beside himself with excitement all day. He felt the Almeida had either laid down a a gauntlet or delivered him a personal invitation to nod off during the play. Add to this a cast that includes one of his favourite actresses Stockard Channing and another of his obsessions – the use of punctuation in the title, he cajoled Phil out of semi-retirement to accompany him to Islington senior citizens’ favourite, the über-trendy Almeida Theatre.
Taking their seats in the auditorium Andrew (who likes things to be tidy and put away) immediately pointed out the numerous rows of smalls and other garments of a personal nature pegged out on washing lines above the stage and Phil immediately felt at home. Andrew of course felt alienated – his monthly change of clothing was still days away. But as the Almeida proudly uses the Telegraph’s quote that it’s “the country’s hottest theatre” the Whingers presumed that this had nothing to do with the production’s design but took it as a sign that sponsorship is flagging and they’re now taking in washing and converting the space into a giant airing cupboard. It certainly felt warm enough.
But the Whingers, as is their wont, digress. Beneath this Widow Twanky-ish set up is a realistic New York parlour in various shades of drab which screamed West End transfer. A living room/diner which leads to a kitchen through a scene-stealing swing door, which persists in swinging long after anyone has passed through it. Even better, the door creaks as much as the seats at the Old Vic Theatre so perhaps when Kevin Spacey finally invests in some 2-in-1 for his own auditorium he’ll rush some round to the Almeida with whatever is left over.
The play itself began promisingly. Channing plays Bessie, matriarch of The Berger family who we first encounter mid-meal shovelling down platefuls of real food at the dining table. Regular readers will know that this meant there was no danger of Phil not keeping awake! here. His much homaged on-stage food thesis has been on hold recently but the generous quantities of victuals consumed at this table throughout the play (duck, pickle, sandwiches, cheese and a lone but deeply significant and much talked about apple) have completely revived his creative and intellectual ramblings on the subject.
The Whingers were puzzled at first: was this an Italian Noo Yoik family? No. About 15 minutes in someone flicks the Jewish switch to the “on” position and they start coming out with lines like, “A girl like that, he wants to marry?” But as guest whinger Rick noted, the Jewish switch gets turned on and off so many times throughout the evening that Phil began to wonder if he’d wandered into Gaslight by mistake.
Anyhoo, this depression-set drama follows the lives of a four generation family living in a small apartment and struggling not just to survive, but – in the eyes of Bessie – to manage their reputation when unmarried daughter Hennie (Jody Whittaker, she of Venus, very good) falls pregnant and son Ralph (Ben Turner, also very good) falls in love with – shock horror – an orphan!
Life is hard and the depression is taking its toll as neighbourhood families are evicted onto the streets but Bessie is more concerned with keeping her family on the straight and narrow.
Constantly in the background (or in the foreground) is Bessie’s elderly father Jacob (John Rogan, excellent) who is what is today called a “wheelchair user”, a Caruso-loving Marxist barber who tries to persuade Ralph to stop mooning over the orphan and make something of his life by forming a trades union and changing the world.
Now, we must confess we got a bit confused here. Not about the socio-political messages but about the wheelchair. It’s not mentioned in the script (and there’s a bit where it is screamingly so not in the script, but we won’t give that away) but as we can’t be bothered to look it up, we don’t know. And then Mr Rogan was wheeled on for the curtain call so our deduction is that it is Mr Rogan who is actually a wheelchair user.
And indeed it is so. We found this tucked away on his agent’s website:
Following my accident 2 years ago, and thinking I would never work again, I am now fully recovered and bursting with enthusiasm to be ” back in harness” again. However I realise that in this crazy and overcrowded profession to get a job when one is fully operational is difficult……. Now that I am wheelchair bound well, it adds to the problem, but it’s not impossible and I can sit or be static and appear on stage or screen again and only recently did some film work….So there. Also, and this is in no way thinking “well I’d better do some more radio and voice over work” as if this was a poor second choice. Far from it I have always loved doing “voice work” and by dint of practice I honestly believe I am now very good at it…..So if you want some glorious dulcet sounds call me day or night or seriously call my agent between 9 and 6.
Good on you, Mr Rogan. The West End Whingers salute you. And we salute the Almeida for not making a song and dance about it.
In terms of the production: this is probably about as good as you can do with Odets. In terms of the choice of play: well, why? It’s another museum piece dragged out of the back of the cupboard, dusted off and given a fresh lick of cast. But why?
Perhaps it should have been updated for a modern audience. Phil, for example, would have been much more engaged and sympathetic if Bessie had been worried about the neighbours discovering that her washing machine wasn’t a Miele, but Andrew claims it wouldn’t have had quite the same dramatic potential.
Would-be Whinger Rick wisely said that the whole thing reminded him of Laura Meredith‘s determination to only appear in “socially significant plays”
Anyway, the Whingers left the Almeida believing it as dated and as creaky as that swing-door, but on the plus side and despite Andrew’s determination to go into snooze mode he did stay awake. Thankfully for Phil, Rick and the residents of Islington he didn’t sing.