Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Theatre review: The Price

I’m not aware of any particular Arthur Miller milestone this year (both his centenary and the tenth anniversary of his death would have been in 2015) so maybe it’s just a case of everyone having the same idea that’s led to so many theatres staging his work this year. In a couple of months’ time two of his most famous works will be back in London but first a couple of lesser-known pieces; and while at times The Price justifies its comparative obscurity, for most of its lengthy running time Jonathan Church’s production makes a strong case for the revival. Both written and set in the 1960s, the story is nevertheless rooted in the Depression of the ‘30s. The Franz family were children of New York millionaires who lost everything in the Crash except for their house; their mother having died around the same time, they moved everything into the attic so they could let out the rest of the building.

Older brother Walter (Adrian Lukis) managed to get through university and medical school, and make his own fortune as surgeon to the very wealthy; but the equally academically gifted Victor (Brendan Coyle) worked multiple jobs to pay Walter’s tuition and look after their father, by then a depressed recluse.

By the time the play begins their father has been dead for decades, the brothers have been estranged for almost as long, and the building is about to be demolished. Still full of all the furniture that had been crammed into it in the ‘30s, the attic needs clearing out, and Victor and his wife Esther (Sara Stewart) are waiting for an appraiser to make them an offer for everything. Having ended up spending the last thirty years in the police force and coming up for retirement, Victor could do with a cash boost, but octogenarian appraiser Gregory Solomon (David Suchet) won’t be a push-over.

The entire three-hour play consists of a single scene played out in real time, interrupted only by the interval and picking up again exactly where it left off. With only four characters, much of the structure involves pairing up two of them (even when there’s a third person on stage the focus is usually on a confrontation between two of them.) The most effective of these are the first act’s gentle dealings between Victor and Gregory, as the elderly furniture dealer chats and reminisces; like Victor, the audience is sucked into wondering what game he’s playing, and how he might be trying to get the  furniture at a knock-down price. These quiet moments of the two characters revealing a lot about themselves are so effective I was actually sorry for the fact that the drama would have to build in the second act. And indeed, while Walter’s unexpected arrival does bring the fireworks, the second act is the less effective.

This is largely down to Miller’s writing itself, as in order to bring about the necessary confrontation between the brothers the script relies on some pretty convoluted revelations, each of them getting the upper hand with a new secret before the other gets a further twist in. It’s a too obviously contrived structure, and takes away from the impact as we discover the very different sacrifices each of them made in the wake of their family’s losses. The overall effect is still a powerful one though, and Church’s production surrounds its strong performances with imposing visuals – Paul Pyant’s lighting creating eerie shadows through the furniture piled high above Simon Higlett’s set. The star name’s virtual disappearance for the second act – and the loss of the most interesting character with him – makes it an oddly balanced evening but with a lot to recommend it overall.

The Price by Arthur Miller is booking until the 27th of April at Wyndham’s Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark.

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