REVIEW: Chicken Soup

Nothing’s changed – you know that!

Set in the heart of a Rotherham community at intermittent points over three decades, Kieran Knowles and Ray Castleton’s play tenderly explores the relationships between three women working in a local soup kitchen.

The story opens following the horrors of Orgreave, when morale amongst bruised and battered miners in the region is at an all-time low. Fitting in time around other jobs and family commitments, Christine (Samantha Power), Josephine (Judy Flynn) and Jennifer (Simone Saunders) decide that, in their own words, “there’s no point moping” and take it on themselves to organise food provision for the striking miners and their kin. In-between the witty banter and hearty Yorkshire adages, which the Sheffield audience naturally lap up, there are moments when the smallest of cracks begin to present themselves on hardened skins, where bubbling frustrations at the unfairness of the situation threaten to waver ever-steady stoicism. But almost as soon as the audience are given an opportunity to process the enormity of their pain, things are whisked back on-track with a shrug of the shoulders and a return to steely resolve. “We hit the bottom and come flying back up,” Josephine tells Jennifer in one particularly moving moment, comparing their plight to her son’s bouncy ball. There’s a period of contemplative silence before Christine quickly chides her for being so soppy.

Years pass, Thatcher’s voice fades away on the radio, mobile phones and a grumpy teenager (a very funny performance from Remmie Milner) are introduced, New Labour’s new dawn passes, and the country grapples over the Brexit vote. But in this small community, things remain by and large the same: vulnerable people still come to the centre hungry, and the three characters remain united in doing their bit to help. The fiery Christine in particular is still seething, charged by resentment towards an establishment which continues to fail their community, and when her underlying rage seeps out it’s enough to make hairs stand on end.

A superb group of actors (Jo Hartley also plays a small but powerful part as Christine’s exiled sister-in-law) and affectionate writing ensures the bonds between audience and characters are maintained. Amidst the laughs – and there are plenty– the poignancy is amplified in the knowledge that the characters on display represent real life strong northern women continuing to fight, holding together families and communities in the most unforgiving of situations. It’s a tribute to the talents of the cast that I saw glimpses of some I know in their performances – and judging by the loud laughter, odd dab at the eyes and rapturous applause at the end, many others in the audience did too.

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