Death of a Salesman (Young Vic)

This much-lauded revival of Arthur Miller’s most performed play now has the Lomans as an African-American family resident in Brooklyn, and adds some snatches of melody to the tragic downward trajectory of Willy Loman, a salesman of over thirty years, once “well-liked” but now not even able to stay afloat on his commission.

Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman
Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman

It’s been a Miller-heavy few months, with five plays revived in London this year: The American Clock and All My Sons at the Old Vic, The Price at the Wyndhams, The Crucible at The Yard, and now this.

While the Old Vic imported American stars to headline All My Sons, the Young Vic has cast Wendell Pierce (of Suits fame) as the titular salesman, and he is pathetic and terrifying in equal measure as the man whose grip on sanity is crumbling as his fortunes decline.

Sharon D Clarke, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe
Sharon D Clarke, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe

Sharon D Clarke, who I saw earlier in the year in Caroline, or Change, is the strength behind the marriage. Her Linda holds things together even if you can see each line of worry etched on her face as the days progress.

This is an accomplished performance, completely believeable, from her clear affection for her husband to her distain for his arrogant, diamond-hunting brother Ben (Joseph Mydell), who “walked out of the jungle at 21 … rich”.

Wendell Pierce, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe
Wendell Pierce, Arinze Kene, Martins Imhangbe

Sons Biff (Arinze Kene) and Happy (Martins Imhangbe) have been raised to see themselves as better than everyone else, even if reality fails to bear this out. Biff, once a promising footballer and student, is a farmhand. Happy steals other people’s girlfriends to mask his own insecurity and lack of professional advancement.

Willy’s thoughts, dreams and memories are depicted through brighter lighting, freeze frames, and a sense of the unworldy. Ben, on his handful of appearances, is often on the stairs in an auditorium aisle, glowing like a hopeful beacon.

Wendell Pierce and Maggie Service in Death of a Salesman
Wendell Pierce and Maggie Service in Death of a Salesman

Even Willy’s father musician makes his appearance, and the woman buyer (Maggie Service) who lusts after the stockings Linda is reduced to mending is a peroxide caricature.

This is a true American tragedy, in which the Lomans have been lost as their neighbours, Charley (Trevor Cooper) and son Bernard (Ian Bonar), have prospered. Willy Loman and his sons have become an irrelevance in a country which promised them so much.

Wendell Pierce and Trevor Cooper in Death of a Salesman
Wendell Pierce and Trevor Cooper in Death of a Salesman

The design of the set, by Anna Fleischle, is all hanging props, windows, tables. There are clever touches where the balcony is used for a couple of scenes, and where Biff’s call to his mother is shown in silhouette, his body language communicating his declining confidence.

Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell direct this emotional roller-coaster of a play, still relevant after seventy years. After its run at the Young Vic to 13 July, it transfers to the Piccadilly Theatre from 24 October to 4 January.

Photo credits Brinkhoff Mogenburg.

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All My Sons (Old Vic)

Over to Waterloo today for the fourth of five Arthur Miller plays showing in London this year, this time the family drama All My Sons.

A story of corruption and profiteering in wartime, we first meet Joe Keller (Bill Pullman) in his garden, with his neighbours Dr Bayliss (Sule Rimi) and Frank (Gunnar Cauthery). He’s an affable chap, pleasant enough, wealthy, with an average house.

Sally Field and Colin Morgan
Sally Field and Colin Morgan

Upstairs there’s a guest, Ann (Jenna Coleman, in her London stage debut after television success in Victoria). She was the girl next door and the sweetheart of the Keller family’s eldest son, lost in battle. Now she’s sought after by the other son, Chris (Colin Morgan), who has aspirations to move away and leave the family business.

Sally Field and Jenna Coleman
Sally Field and Jenna Coleman

The first half of this play is mostly scene-setting, with the wives of the neighbours chipping in, then we meet Kate Keller (the wonderful Sally Field), who lives each day in the vain hope that her lost son, Larry, will return. She even gets Frank to chart the horoscope of the day he died to prove it was “a favourable day”.

In the second half of the play, Ann’s brother George (Oliver Johnstone) visits, a coiled spring of nerves, hiding behind his father’s hat, fighting against his growing revulsion of the family who welcome him as a son, but who he blames for his family’s disgrace and his father’s incarceration.

Bill Pullman and Jenna Coleman
Bill Pullman and Jenna Coleman

Heading to raw revelations and family devastation, this play rips apart the pretence and bonhomie of years of neighbours living in close companionship and learning to be smart, not honest.

Jeremy Herrin directs, and Max Jones designs the set of house, picket fence, trees and lights, plus a projection of distortion which hints of the distress to come.

Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan
Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan

Field’s performance is the major draw – I felt Pullman lacked the business toughness behind Keller’s jovial exterior, and I couldn’t always make out his lines even from the front stalls. Morgan and Coleman are good, too, plus Kayla Meikle as Mrs Bayliss.

Jeremy Herrin directs, and Max Jones designs the set of house, picket fence, trees and lights, plus an opening projection of distortion which hints at the fracture and distress to come.

All My Sons continues at the Old Vic until the 8 June. Photo credits Johan Persson.

The Crucible (The Yard Theatre)

On the final day of a successful run, I caught up with my favourite Arthur Miller play, this time staged at the tiny theatre just off Hackney Wick station, and directed by artistic director and founder of The Yard, Jay Miller.

A powerful play about the power of men, the subjection of women, and the dangers of propaganda and hysteria, The Crucible can be read in many ways from the #MeToo movement to the Brexit crisis.

Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.

Playing with gender norms, John Proctor, the male lead character of this play, is portrayed here by a woman, Caoilfhionn Dunne, who exhibits an intensity, a vulnerability, and a core of steel which comes together to make a deeply effective performance.

Dunne’s Proctor is supported by a small company who both pull this complex play together and plug the gaps left by not having all the characters present on stage when the play demands it (instead clever use of staging and sound choices keep things moving).

Jacob James Beswick in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
Jacob James Beswick in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.

Nina Cassells as Abigail, Emma D’Arcy as Elizabeth Proctor, Lucy Vandi as Tituba and Rebecca Nurse, Jack Holden as Rev Hale and Sorcha Groundsell as Mary Warren are all superb, with the remainder of the cast making their mark (Jacob James Beswick as the Judges and Thomas Putnam especially repellent; Sophie Duval a rounded Giles Corey; Syrus Lowe as Parris, whose misplaced fear and vanity set the wheels of disaster in motion).

Cecile Tremolieres’ set design is deceptively simple; Oliver Cronk’s costumes move from the modern casual of the opening act, to period costume and eventually more contemporary pieces; and Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design fuses lullabies, electro and Roy Orbison to good effect.

Sorcha Groundswell and Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
Sorcha Groundswell and Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.

It is Miller’s words that shine through, though, beginning from an overture which is a rehearsed read-through, to the hysteria of the later passages. With a woman as Proctor, we see the character in a slightly different light, and even Abigail appears more fearful and abused child than cunning whore.

Nina Cassells and Syrus Lowe in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
Nina Cassells and Syrus Lowe in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.

This is an excellent and powerful production of a familiar classic, using space, sound, lighting (Jess Bernberg’s varied work with spotlights, strobes, candles and more) to bring the homes and rooms of Salem to life.

An emotional roller-coaster which definitely has relevance today, this is possibly the best Miller adaptation this year; certainly the best of the three I have seen so far this year.

The Price (Wyndhams)

This is the second production in my unofficial 2019 Arthur Miller theatrical quintet, following The American Clock. Still to come are The Crucible, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman.

It was also set to be an unofficial trio of actors who appeared in Downton Abbey, following Alys Always (Joanne Froggart) and Tartuffe (Kevin Doyle). But leading man Brendan Coyle is indisposed, so Sion Lloyd is on as Victor.

Brendan Coyle and Sara Stewart in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
Brendan Coyle and Sara Stewart in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.

The Price is rarely revived – I saw the 2004 production in Leeds with Warren Mitchell as Solomon, and there is an excellent TV version from 1971 which was led by George C Scott as Victor.

But the play isn’t particularly well known – a pity, as it is a family drama, with comic interludes (David Suchet’s ancient dealer Solomon is beautifully judged) and an eventual final act into which Lloyd’s tour de force as the seething policeman clashes with his selfish and wealthy brother Walter (Adrian Lukis).

David Suchet in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
David Suchet in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.

Victor’s wife (a spiky Sara Stewart, who displays little warmth) has always resented his missed opportunities, lack of education, scrimping and saving while their lives were on hold. Now it has been three years since Dad has died, and his cluttered attic, represented brilliantly by Simon Higglett’s set which literally fills the walls with furniture, is to be cleared, sold, and the house demolished.

Adrian Lukis, David Suchet, Brendan Coyle in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
Adrian Lukis, David Suchet, Brendan Coyle in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.

The Price is a wordy and challenging play – Victor and Walter may be more like each other than they’d like to admit, and they are both complex and damaged characters. Jonathan Church’s direction of this 50th anniversary production gets to the heart of the matter.

Victor may feel crushed by lack of opportunity, but also lack of ambition – but it is the successful doctor Walter who has divorced, and who is recovering from a breakdown.

David Suchet in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
David Suchet in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.

On the fringes of this brotherly discussion are the wife, the dealer, and the spirit of the dead dad, whose clutter both physical and financial, has stopped everyone moving on. Mum has been dead for years but her gowns are still carefully boxed. There’s a fencing sword, an oar, a harp.

I liked the way that music tops and tails the play, beginning with the vaudeville staple “Mr Gallagher and Mr Shean” (Solomon worked with them, in his youth, in a family of acrobats) and closing with a 1920s “laughing record”.

The Price closes on 27 April.

The American Clock (Old Vic)

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

Death of a Salesman (RSC at the Noël Coward Theatre)

It is Arthur Miller’s centenary year, and as one of the foremost 20th century playwrights it seems fitting that several productions of his plays have recently been staged within the UK – last year’s The Crucible at the Young Vic, All My Sons at Richmond, the recent West End visit of A View From The Bridge, and now this one, perhaps his best known work, a look at the flipside of the American Dream.

salesman

Willy Loman is a sixty-three year old salesman who works out in New England, driving hundreds of miles a week to flog goods to an increasingly tough crowd of buyers, who no longer know or respect him.  His boss, Howard, is a whizz-kid obsessed with technology and profits, and not swayed by the bonds of friendship which had been extended to his staff by his father, Frank.

At home, Willy’s wife Linda is increasingly desperate and sad to see his rambling shuffling at night, his frequent car accidents (passed off by tiredness, inattention (‘imagine all my life on the road and looking at scenery’), and poor eyesight), and his talking to himself while in dreams of a past that might not have existed.  Their sons, Biff and Happy, are thirty-something and still living at home, having made little of themselves.  Biff, as we see in flashbacks, had been an active sportsman during school, expected to succeed far beyond his puny and weedy swot friend Bernard.  Happy is always trying to get his parents’ attention (‘I’m losing weight, have you noticed?’), but their neglect of their second child has led him to become a shallow narcissist who uses woman and has no thoughts for anyone but himself.

Next-door, family friend Charley (and father of Bernard) is a success in business, and once Willy loses salary and is put on commission, gives him fifty dollars a week so he doesn’t lose face at home, despite Linda being clearly aware of what is going on.  We see Willy’s bluster and confidence over the years erode into a quiet depression which builds and eventually blows up in an intense second half when he finally sees that Biff is not the man he wants him to be, and that his own dream of success – represented by his ghostly brother Ben (‘when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, when I was twenty-one I walked out, and by God I was rich!’).

In the role of Willy Loman, Antony Sher puts in a huge and pitiful performance as everything continues to stack up against him, whether he is begging for money to pay his insurance from a boss who has past caring, flashing back to an affair with a greedy woman who takes the packs of stockings meant for Linda (who has to sit and home and mend and darn her own threadbare items), or motivating his boys to be materialistic and thoughtless while failing to recognise the true qualities of success and friendship.

Willy is a man who has lost his way.  At first, we might find his plight amusing, a man who mutters about progress and wonders about cheese in a can.  Soon, though, and thanks to an affecting performance from Harriet Walter as the ever-concerned Linda, we see the grip of mental illness taking its toll on this man who once had a dream to walk into every buyer’s office and be ‘liked’.  Alex Hassall, last seen as Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff (a different father-son dynamic) in the Barbican production of Henry IV, is excellent as the wild-eyed, increasingly unhinged Biff, whose dream of cattle ranches overshadows his limitations in business and as a man.  As Happy, Sam Marks (who had played Poins in that Henry IV), stands on the sidelines, almost a mute observer in this tragedy.  He is as much a sham as everything else around him.

A powerful play in a tower of strength from the whole cast, this is yet another production to showcase theatre’s top power couple, Sher and his spouse Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director and helmsman of tonight’s play.  We await their next collaboration on King Lear in 2016 with great interest.  Incidentally, another couple appear in the cast – Walter and her husband Guy Paul, who is rather excellent as the white-suited Ben, almost the voice of the devil in human form.  Willy always wished he had followed his brother to Alaska, but we have no idea whether or not this would have been wise.

Several scenes work well in a claustrophobic set of lighted tenement apartments surrounding the Loman house (paid for at the close of the play, described by Linda as their being ‘free and clear’).  The first flashback shows a carefree Willy playing ball with his sons, with Biff getting all the adultation.  Later, we switch to his advising his son back in the present on how to approach an old colleague for a loan (‘if something falls off his desk, don’t you pick it up, they have office boys for that’), mirrored by his own painful meeting with Howard where, when something does fall, Willy bends to retrieve it.  The discussions with Ben, whether in the past (where Linda dissuades him from leaving), or in the present, where the spectre of his brother interrupts a card game with Charley, are well-done, and the restaurant sequence where father and son rail at each other, culminating in Biff and Happy leaving with the girls they have just picked up (Happy to the waiter: ‘He’s not my dad, he’s just some guy’) is emotionally devastating.

The final coda, after the death of the title, sees no one coming to the funeral beyond family and Charley with his son.  Willy Loman, for all his dreams, has been forgotten, and life moves on.  Happy might declare his father has ‘not died in vain’, but we don’t see how he can make a difference, and Charley’s contempt of the sons who might have eased their father’s final troubled days speaks volumes.

With Joshua Richards as Charley, Tobias Beer as Howard, Brodie Ross as a sympathetic Bernard, who has grown to become a man of the law, Sarah Parks as The Woman, as Ross Green as the typically cheery waiter, Stanley.

The Crucible (Old Vic), review

Arthur Miller’s powerful play equating the hysteria of the Salem witch trials with the investigations of the McCarthy committee against Communist influences within Hollywood.  Even with this in mind the unfolding plot seems eerily relevant today, in which any questioning of authority might be seen as subversive, and where the question can still be asked “is the accuser always holy?”

The Old Vic auditorium has been adapted to accommodate a production ‘in the round’, not entirely successfully – from the original old stalls seating, where I was, you look forward to the old proscenium arch and boxes which look a little forlorn now, especially as they have been draped in what look like stained dustsheets.  Ahead there is temporary stalls seating, some so close to the actors they almost become part of the action, and two tiers of seating above.  These seats must cost less than the ones on the other side of the stage as they are often looking at the backs of actors rather than seeing a true sense of what’s going on.

Richard Armitage has been cast in the leading role of John Proctor, a good Christian man with a pious wife (Anna Madeley) and three young boys who we never see.  Their servant Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) is close to a simpleton, easily led and susceptible to suggestion from her close friend Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley), who had previously served the Proctors and been dismissed after an illicit affair with the master of the house.  As Proctor will say towards the end of the play, Abigail is ‘no child’, and it is her cunning and calculation that led to the horrendous destruction of more than twenty good souls of her village.

This is an era where witchcraft is still seriously considered as a counter to pious religious observance, where girls are seen to fly, fit and faint to order, and where outside figures of authority (the minister, Mr Hale (Adrian Schiller, who is excellent), and the judge, Danforth (Jack Ellis)) are initially welcomed but then bring fear and terror with them.  There’s something about watching crowd mentality and hysteria which is underlined in this production from the opening scenes, where neighbours look at each other with suspicion and old questions about the land and the law rear their heads.

‘The Crucible’ is an intense play which is powerfully performed here, and becomes exceptionally moving towards the end.  Some small, but beautiful pieces of casting bring veterans William Gaunt (as Giles) and Ann Firbank (as Rebecca Nurse) to the stage, while newcomer Colley is the epitome of jealous evil as Abigail, with her darting eyes and spittles of spite coming through in her first interaction alone with her former lover.  She is a dangerous spirit who leads the other children in a spiral of fantasy which leads their friends to madness or the gallows.

Some of the playing is a little too broad for the space (Michael Thomas as Rev Parris, Harry Attwell as Putnam) but these are playing the accusers, and it is perhaps necessary to see them caught up in their own vengeance and wild excitement as they abuse power in the name of piety. 

The only downside to this production if I had to pick one was the small minority in the audience who felt the need to laugh at the scenes in the court, which have to be played at a heightened level to be effective.  The in the round staging does work well in these scenes – I spied a woman in the temporary stalls with her hand to her mouth looking horrified at Armitage’s ‘because it is my name’ speech and this did add something to an already unbearable experience.  You watch these characters unravel before your eyes and you are helpless to help them or look away. 

See this for Armitage’s extraordinary performance – he’s rarely off-stage for the mammoth three hour running time (plus interval) and although his vocal power might be a little diminished by the end, it doesn’t matter.  His Proctor will surely be classed as one of the great stage performances in the future.