Sunday, 20 December 2015

Theatre review: No Villain

The Finborough must be kicking themselves to have missed this one, not only a forgotten play by one of the 20th century's great dramatists but his first, and never previously staged to boot. Arthur Miller wrote No Villain at university - in six days - because he was broke, and the Avery Hopwood playwrighting award offered a $250 top prize. He won the award and the money, but evidently the competition didn't actually extend to producing the winning script, and it got filed away. As Miller went on to become a celebrated playwright the existence of No Villain doesn't seem to have been much of a secret - director Sean Turner found mention of it in Miller's published memoirs, which is where his interest was piqued. But as it's a common phenomenon for a prolific writer's best-known plays to be revived constantly while others gather dust, I'm not entirely surprised that nobody before Turner had actually bothered to seek out a copy and see if it was worth staging.

Considering Miller was a high-profile victim of McCarthyism, maybe it's for the best that his debut was hiding in a drawer at the University of Michigan at the time, as it would only have given them more ammunition.

Unashamedly autobiographical, No Villain centres on the return from his first year at University of Arnold (Adam Harley,) who's read up on Communism and, in the continuing financial devastation from the Great Depression, sees it as the most viable option. His father Abe (David Bromley) owns a garment factory and managed to survive the Crash, but the family business is once again threatened: With the birth of the unions, a violent strike is taking place, and even though Abe's own workers aren't taking part, it's impossible for anyone to get past the picket lines and deliver stock to his clients.

Although Arnold is the stand-in for Miller himself, and Abe the one who gives the play its title by declaring that he doesn't believe trying to break the strike makes him a villain, it's the oldest son Ben (George Turvey) who's really the central figure. Where Abe wants to keep his business afloat for his own and his family's sake, and Arnold refuses to be a scab because he wants fairer conditions for everyone, Ben is a microcosm of the dispute in himself: He actually sympathises with the strikers but continues to work for his father despite feeling like the bad guy, and Turvey gives a strong performance of the conflicted character.

Turner's production, with a design by Max Dorey that really brings the period and location to life, serves the play well and reveals it as a strong debut. It may not be the subtlest work, either in the way Miller's real family inspire its characters, or in its message about the author's political beliefs; but given the issues I have with The Crucible, maybe skimping on the metaphors is no bad thing. If this afternoon's audience is anything to go by, the promise of an unseen Miller has brought a lot of new people to the Old Red Lion, and I can't imagine No Villain will have been a disappointment to them.

No Villain by Arthur Miller is booking until the 9th of January at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

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