Saturday, 4 May 2019

Theatre review: All My Sons

After a pair of more obscure plays a couple of months ago, this year's second brace of Arthur Miller plays offers up some of his most famous works; once again the Old Vic is involved in this unofficial mini-season, with Jeremy Herrin's starry production of Miller's early hit All My Sons. Bill Pullman (he's the Bill who's still alive) plays Joe Keller, a businessman whose factory became notorious during the Second World War when it was exposed as having provided faulty aircraft parts that led to the deaths of 21 airmen. Bill was exonerated but his business partner is still in jail for it. His own son Larry wasn't flying one of the affected planes but he disappeared on a mission, and three years after the end of the War everyone's accepted he must be dead except for his mother Kate (SALLY FIELD!) who still holds onto the hope that he might return. But her other son Chris (Colin Morgan) had returned home with news that will make her have to confront the facts.

Daughter of Bill's disgraced business partner, Ann (Jenna Coleman) was Larry's childhood sweetheart, but now Chris plans to propose to her, dashing Katie's illusion that everyone else also expects Larry to walk back in and pick up his life where he left off.

It's not just Kate who's going to be forced to confront truths she's been avoiding, as the Kellers' friends and neighbours who claim to believe in Joe's innocence to his face have a very different opinion of his story behind his back. Suspecting the reason Chris has invited Ann over, her brother George (Oliver Johnstone) arrives to warn her against marrying into the family of the man who framed their father. Herrin's production opens with a bang, as a video compilation of American military campaigns ends with a suburban Ohio house that bursts into life onto Max Jones's set, but for the next two and a half hours it's happy to keep things on much more of a quietly devastating level. (Jones' set is stunning, but it's to the credit of everything else going on on stage that it barely registers at the time.)

I guess one advantage when your big American imports are best-known as movie rather than stage stars is that you don't quite get the particular Broadway brand of showboating*, and Pullman in particular gives a very restrained performance, Joe's persona as the wealthy neighbour all the local kids love barely containing the anxiety over the guilty secret he's keeping in. Field is of course a notorious tearjerker and doesn't disappoint here on that front; there's a fragility to her delusion about Larry's fate, but even more of a gut-punch is the scene where she reveals just how much her self-deception is conscious, and why.

It's the younger cast who've got the more explosive moments, with Morgan having the biggest journey to take as Chris starts off as a borderline saintly idealist - another protective persona, in his case as much to distance himself from how many men he killed in the war as his family's dark legacy - who has both this protective shell and his hopes of future happiness with Ann taken away from him. Coleman is quietly impressive, as is Johnstone whose George is superficially full of rage but can barely even keep that up as he's so obviously broken; particularly when confronted with Lydia (Bessie Carter,) the childhood sweetheart he still loves but who's since married local idiot Frank (Gunnar Cauthery,) who enables Kate's fantasy by drawing up horoscopes "proving" Larry can't have died. Much-needed lighter moments are provided by Kayla Meikle and Sule Rimi as the new neighbours who've bought what used to be Ann and George's home.

All My Sons may be, especially as revealed by Herrin's production, about the self-deceptions that keep us going and how fragile they can be, but this particular quartet of plays that have ended up in London within weeks of each other - it concludes shortly with Death of a Salesman down the road, which is unlikely to buck the trend - turns out, despite not having been programmed as such, to provide a concise overview of Miller as brutal critic of capitalism, to the extent it's no wonder he became a target for McCarthyism. Joe's defence of his actions ultimately comes down to the fact that it made the money Chris will end up inheriting; it's not enough to convince even himself, but in reality America and the world remain full of Joe Kellers who have no trouble sleeping at night.

All My Sons by Arthur Miller is booking until the 8th of June at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

*then again, nobody told Bradley Cooper that

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