Roots is the kind of production that critics adore but audiences will find hard to love. It's intellectual but slow, well-observed but without purpose and it's intriguing without ever being interesting.
At the heart of Roots is Beatrice. It's 1958 and Beatie, as her family call her, has come back home to Norfolk for a couple of weeks to prepare her family to meet, for the first time, her fiancée Ronnie.
Beatie's been staying in London with Ronnie, a man who considers himself an intellectual with a profound socialist passion. Beatie is desperately in awe of her fiancée, prone to quoting his profound thoughts at the flip of a coin. Only now Beatie is fretting that her family are not clever enough for Ronnie and could become the source of great embarrassment for her.
Written in the 1950s around the same time as other kitchen-sink dramas such as Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Roots is a study of so many themes that were popular material at that time - the frustrated dreams of the common man (or woman), the exploitation of the working classes and the rigidity of the British class system.
However, unlike the angry conflicts and fights that filled similar material at the time, the pace of Roots is very languid. Great passages in the production pass without much of anything happening. Beatie's conflict with her family is at a very low level throughout most of the play and arguments intermittent until the climactic dinner scene as the whole family wait for Ronnie's imminent arrival. As a result, the play lacks much in the way of momentum and narrative drive; it just sort of meanders along.
But that's not to say there isn't much to enjoy about this show.
At the heart of the production is a very warm, heartfelt performance from Jessica Raine as Beatie, the young woman struggling to find her own voice. But she is not alone in delivering a quality performance - the whole cast is excellent in their portrayal of a Norfolk family somewhat contentedly stuck in their little community with their inevitable family politics and familiar routines.
Wesker's dialogue is also a highlight. There isn't much in the way of anxiety or conflict, true, but he brings great humour to the script with his wry observations on how people time their days with familiar rituals and occurrences.
The sets are also superb (Designer: Hildegard Bechtler). To set up two functioning country kitchens and a family dining room in the compact space of the Donmar during the course of a single show is quite a challenge so credit to the sharp stage management crew who built each set without a hitch.
However, though I can say I did enjoy the production overall, it was noticeable that not all of the audience stayed until the end. Roots is a Look Back in Anger without the anger. And for that, audiences will struggle to come away from this production enthusing about it.
Donmar Warehouse, London
To November 30, 2013