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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Caroline, or Change (Playhouse Theatre)

poster image for Caroline or Change

The Chichester Theatre production of this accomplished musical has just announced it closes a month early to make room for the transfer of Fiddler on the Roof from the Menier, but I would recommend you take advantage of the deals and discounts now available to see Caroline, or Change, if you can.

Planned for several years, and written by Angels in America author Tony Kushner, this show was originally planned as an opera but instead grew into a stage musical, largely sung-through, composed by Jeanine Tesori (her previous show, Violet, is also in town, and I will report back on that next month).

Dujonna Gift-Simms, Ako Mitchell, Tanisha Spring, Sharon D Clarke
Dujonna Gift-Simms, Ako Mitchell, Tanisha Spring, Sharon D Clarke

Caroline (Sharon D Clarke) is a black maid who works for a rich Jewish family, the Gellmans. She is a widow with three children of her own, who live in poverty under the shadow of the Confederate Statue we see as the play opens, a symbol of the white privilege which stops the likes of Caroline and her friend Dotty (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) from getting on in life.

The opening scene proper gives a sense of the unusual: there is a singing washing-machine, a dryer, and eventually, the lady in the moon. This gives a sense of the fantastic to Caroline’s mundane day of cleaning and doing the laundry.

Me'sha Bryan and Sharon D Clarke
Me’sha Bryan and Sharon D Clarke

We are also introduced to Noah, the spoiled young man of the house (Aaron Gelkoff at this performance), who misses his dead mother, resents his cookie-cut stepmother (Lauren Ward), and enjoys sharing an illicit daily cigarette with Caroline.

Noah has a habit of leaving loose change in his pockets, and this is the “change” which is depicted in the title; he seeks attention by leaving the change for Caroline (who is allowed by Rose, the wife, to keep it), and she takes the opportunity to treat her children to the treats they would otherwise go without.

Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua in Caroline or Change
Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua in Caroline or Change

Politics intrude now and then – the assassination of JFK, who was on the side of civil liberties, and a Chanukah celebration which touches on racial politics, with an argument between Mr Stopnick, Rose’s father (Teddy Kempner) and Emmie, Caroline’s growing daughter (Abiona Omonua) – but what matters is the bond between people, and the aspiration for change in the literal sense.

Noah’s father (Alastair Brookshaw) plays the clarinet and hides his grief; his parents (Vincent Pirillo and Sue Kelvin) add pointed commentary, and Noah grows to find his place in the natural order of things; still, by the ending it seems Caroline has achieved her change, set aside the memories of the sailor she lost, and found her place.

The songs are largely memoraable and vibrant – highlights would include Lot’s Wife, I Hate the Bus, and the Laundry Quintet, with the Radio girls who form a kind of chorus. Clarke is an acting and singing powerhouse, and Omonua is impressive, and all the children do well with their routines.

An informative programme (£5) gives the cultural background on the time depicted, and the genesis of the show.

Ghost – The Musical (Piccadilly Theatre)

Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 3 August 2011.

The 1990 film of ‘Ghost’, directed by Jerry Zucker, starring Patrick Swazye, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg, was the massive hit of that year.  Writer Bruce Joel Rubin again does the writing duties in this musical version, which has songs by Dave Stewart (formerly of The Eurythmics), and Glen Ballard.

Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman in Ghost.
Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman in Ghost.

In the leads this time are British actor Richard Fleeshman, American singer Caissie Levy, and British musical star Sharon D Clarke.  For me, Clarke stole the show as the brassy psychic fake who freaks out when she discovers her family ‘gift’ is real.  She has one knockout number ‘I’m Outta Here’ in which a naughty dig at Whitney Houston raises a smile, and generally radiates energy – and real pathos when it is needed in the closing scenes.  As for the leads – Fleeshman takes time to settle into his role.  Once he becomes the ‘ghost’ he rails against his fate with some justification, but is let down a bit by songs which aren’t needed.  Levy, although an able actress, is a little shrilly when it comes to the high notes (something I noticed when she sang ‘Easy To Be Hard’ as Sheila in last year’s revival of ‘Hair’).  

I felt that ‘Ghost – The Musical’ suffered a bit from what I call ‘Gone-With-The-Wind-syndrome’ in that in the first half at least there seems to be a song to back up every piece of dialogue.  Far too much is City/office based in a sub-‘Enron’ style with numbers flashing in video projection and staccato choreography.  In the second half things move along more quickly as the plot develops and the conclusion is truly moving.  Throughout video projection, magic tricks, and spectacle fill the senses and provide the wow factor.

In the beautifully re-fitted Piccadilly Theatre (with art deco features and a green/gold colour scheme) the audience were impressed enough to give a standing ovation, although I didn’t think this musical quite deserved it!  It’s a reasonable night out – it looks as if money has been thrown at it, and it keeps the plot of the original film intact (although rearranged slightly).  It has some nice tricks concerning the transfer of souls after death (and some nice bits of comedy), but at its heart it is spectacle over substance.  And without any hummable songs other than ‘Unchained Melody’, which is retained from the film as is the clay-making sequence.