The old girl is having a facelift, and this production is sort of in the round with stalls seats behind the stage as well as in front.
The American Clock was written by Arthur Miller and performed for the first time in 1980. It was a failure in its first Broadway appearance, and is rarely revived, but for Miller fans and completists it is just as essential as his classic plays.
This year in London does seem to be Miller time – once this closes, the Old Vic are putting on All My Sons, while over at the Wyndhams David Suchet is starring in The Price, coming up at the Yard in Hackney Wick is a gender-bending The Crucible, and at the Young Vic there is a new production of Death of a Salesman.
I went into The American Clock not knowing what to expect: I knew it featured a family in America’s Great Depression, and that it was a play with music, but that’s all.
Director Rachel Chavkin was responsible for the National’s recent musical Hadestown, and there is some atmospheric cross-over with the soul and jazz standards on display here.
The Baum family – father, mother and son each played by three identically dressed actors – are fairly well-off when the play begins. Father Moe has money in the bank and a decent job. Mother Rose loves her piano, jewellery and nights at the theatre. Son Lee plans to attend an expensive college.
We’re warned by the crash early on by Robertson, who tells his doctor to sell his stocks and keep the profits away from the banks. Sure enough, the markets and banks fail, men who thought themselves millionaires jump from buildings or put bullets through their brains, and families have to hawk their possessions in the pawn shop.
As we move through the 1930s, we follow the Baums and their struggles, with peripheral stories – the grandfather stating Hitler won’t last because Germans are decent people, the farmer who regains his defaulted farm by neighbours nearly lynching the local judge, a dance contest of despair.
One act two scene in the relief office was as powerful as it was pathetic – a starving man nearly killed by his pride evoking our own country’s rise of homelessness and food banks.
There’s a corporate president who hoofs his way to freedom, a steward who takes illegal occupation of the Baum’s basement, and an arranged marriage between Lee and the landlady’s daughter for security.
There are disperate scenes of card nights, money lending, and blind faith in presidential power. Yet, just as we identify with the Baums and their plight, we race from 1938 to 1969 in what seems like ten minutes.
Despite some moments and scenes approaching greatness, and some excellent and committed performances (notably Clare Burt, Golda Rosheuvel – who has the lion’s share of the singing, Francesca Mills – effortlessly moving from mature vamp and frightened wife to jealous teenager and sassy secretary, Amber Aga, and Ewan Wardrop – the hoofer), this show doesn’t quite gel.
It’s almost as if Miller needed an editor to strike through his most preachy and ponderous passages to get to the meat of the matter. The rushed ending is particular reduces the impact of the play.
The American Clock plays until 30 March 2019. Many deals are available if you shop around, and the production is also participating in TodayTix. If you like Miller, then go, but this is certainly not a flawless show.
Photo credits – Manuel Harlan