Friday, 30 March 2012

Theatre review: The American Clock

In recent years a number of theatres have commissioned new plays looking at the current financial crisis, its causes and historical precedents. True to form, Neil McPherson at the Finborough has instead done some digging to find a theatrical great who'd already written such a play, only for it to fall into obscurity. Arthur Miller's The American Clock was nominated for an Olivier in 1986 but hasn't been seen in London since. Arthur A. Robertson (Patrick Poletti) was a wealthy businessman who predicted the Great Depression, put all his money into gold and managed to hold onto his wealth as a consequence, able to observe the chaos the USA fell into in the 1930s. Robertson acts as narrator, as Miller uses Studs Terkel's book of interviews Hard Times as inspiration to tell the stories of dozens of people who faced financial ruin.

Miller adds a personal arc to the play with the story of one Jewish family who start out well-off, but whose move to a poky Brooklyn apartment is only the start of their problems. Rose Baum (Issy van Randwyck) and her husband Moe (Michael J Hayes) go from having to pawn jewellery to desperately trying to keep the bailiff from the door. Their son Lee (Michael Benz) has teenage dreams of going to college which are looking increasingly unlikely to come true. As the years pass and we follow his journey, Lee also comes to mirror Terkel to an extent, interviewing the people most affected across the country and building up an overall picture of what the Depression was really like.

Not that the parallels with the present day need highlighting, but Phil Willmott's production does so interestingly: The set (designed by Philip Lindley) is a private art gallery in which modern-day bankers look dispassionately at an exhibition of photos from the period. This 12-strong ensemble of bankers then go on to play all the 1930s roles, and while the occasional piece of period clothing turns up, for the most part they remain in modern business suits. Naturally it's a bleak piece of history but Miller does allow some lighter moments: Notably a running storyline about Lee's cousin Sidney (David Ellis,) who promises to marry the landlord's daughter (Natalie Kent) so he can live rent-free, but ends up in a genuine romance with her. More than one character's story will end in suicide, but Miller allows a few happy endings, and even has a few people look back on the period with a rose-tinted nostalgia for a period when (in the bits they choose to remember) everyone pulled together.

The second act is particularly concerned with the growing support for Communism (a groundswell whose legacy famously caused the playwright himself a lot of trouble) and there's a strong feeling that America could have taken a very different direction if World War II hadn't come along. Though Roosevelt's policies are credited by some characters with ending the Depression, Miller's suggestion is very much that the War was the biggest factor, which is a pretty chilling conclusion to come to in the context of how the present situation might pan out. I found Hayes rather hammy but otherwise there's strong, involving performances in an unsettling but ultimately rewarding play.

The American Clock by Arthur Miller, based partly on Hard Times by Studs Terkel, is booking until the 21st of April at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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