All My Sons at the Old Vic Theatre review *****

All My Sons

Old Vic Theatre, 10th May 2019

Take Arthur Miller’s most “Greek” and, probably, most moralising play. Wheel in a couple of Hollywood heavyweights (Bill Pullman and Sally Field, Neve before seen on a UK stage). Add a couple of high recognition and talented Brit actors (Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan). And a supporting cast at the top of its game (Sule Rimi, Gunnar Cauthery, Kayla Meike, Bessie Carter and Oliver Johnstone). Design an entirely naturalistic, picket fenced, clapboard house set (Max Jones) draft an A team for lighting (Richard Howell), sound (Carolyn Downing) and video (Duncan McLean). Put Headlong chief Jeremy Herrin in charge, a man with a proven record of delivering serious, yet still entertaining, popular theatre (This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, The Never, Junkyard and Wolf Hall/Brin up the Bodies). Kick off proceedings at a gentle canter but slowly and surely racket up the tension as the disclosures tumble out and the velocity of the dialogue accelerates. Don’t hold anything back at the end. Mr Miller certainly didn’t.

No surprise then that the Old Vic has a hit on its hands playing to packed houses with no need for the occasional discounting that has dogged a few, very good in my opinion, productions in the last couple of years (notably Fanny and Alexander). If you are to believe the Blonde Bombshells, BUD, KCK and the SO, and you should, this is well deserved. After a near miss with Three Sisters I have the team back in the palm of my booking blind hand.

So what is about the play and production that works so well? The last time I saw it, at the Rose Theatre in 2016, director Michael Rudman took a similar unfussy approach to proceedings, with a near identical set and some strong performances from Penny Downie as Kate Keller, Alex Waldmann as son Chris Keller and David Horovitch as Joe Keller, the “common man” and flawed “hero” of Miller’s tragedy. But it never really caught fire as here.

This is largely down to the quartet of excellent performances at the heart of the play. Though we have had a couple of contrarian opinions elsewhere in the viewing circle that mostly centre on the casting of Bill Pullman as Joe, which I can acknowledge but not agree with.

Bill Pullman started out as a stage actor but, as far as I can see, got sidetracked, as one might, by the big bucks of Hollywood. It is fair to say not everything he has laid down on celluloid has been of the highest quality though, also fair to say, I don’t know most of his films. He does have a very particular style of delivery though which, for me, works to great effect here. The pitch of his performance is pretty much unchanged throughout, but its amplitude is constantly changing. Alternately sympathetic, matey, defensive, aggressive, wheedling underneath the homespun, bumbling exterior, this is a man who who knows one day his secret will break him but continues to deny it even to himself, until right at the end. Sally Field as Kate, is similarly covering up, and therefore refuses to accept that her pilot son Larry died in the war, casting a protective cordon around her family. When she finally “finds out” the truth her impassiveness speaks volumes. In my pretty limited experience the stars of the American big screen generally hold back on stage, (a notable exception being Christian Slater in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross). That’s close-ups for you. It can seen underpowered, (and I wouldn’t want to see this production from up in the gods). Jeremy Herrin tough, with his master of pace, finds a way to turn this to advantage, “naturalising” the exposition of the first act and making the sh*t-hit-fan third act even more devastating

It was a joy to see Jenna Coleman as Ann Deever take to the stage after her phenomenally successful TV career. Her exchanges with Sally Field, as she and Chris seek her approval, are extremely affecting. For me though, Colin Morgan as Chris was the star of the show. Racked with survivor guilt from his brother’s death, and buried anger from his own war experiences, and then seeing his chance of happiness through a life with Ann turn to ashes as his father’s sins, (which deep down I think he knows), are revealed. Mr Morgan, as in Translations at the NT, (though this is a very different role even if he again stands at the centre of the plot), is dynamic and enthralling.

All My Sons first appeared in 1947. AM’s first efforts attracted critical acclaim but his previous Broadway opening in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck, was a flop closing after just 4 performances. Thank goodness he didn’t give up. All My Sons doesn’t quite scale the heights of its successors, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, but, as the standing ovation here demonstrated, (mind you that is par for the course now and no bad thing – these creatives deserve our gratitude), it delivers a whacking great emotional punch to the gut. Maybe not quite as much food for thought or structural elegance as those successors, and there are a few near McGuffins, (that letter), in the plot, but this is what drama is all about. You might occasionally rankle at the way AM controls the flow of information, and elevates dialogue over action, but you’ll still be hanging on every word as you catch up with what the various characters know, don’t know and learn about the central hubris. There’s also the old Miller criticism chestnut of veiled misogyny given that Ann acts primarily as the catalyst of the emerging truth and Kate is seen as somehow manipulating those around here. You might also, as a couple of our crew did, question the end, but, hey, that’s catharsis folks.

Well I didn’t know this. AMS is actually based on a true story which AM’s mother-in-law pointed out about an Ohio based aeronautical company that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines for military use, eventually leading to a congressional investigation. I can see why this would have piqued AM’s interest. It could accommodate his overarching concern, the corruption of the American Dream, but here his critique of capitalist individualism riding roughshod over socialist collectivism, found an unambiguous moral centre in one family’s story. Whatever one’s political persuasion, putting profit above the safety of young men fighting for their country and for freedom is surely a no-no, but then again sending them to war in the first place shows a remarkable lack of collective intelligence on the part of the human race. Joe made the execrable decision, (or absence of decision), but did he feel the pressure from the military and the ideal of family? Where AM is really smart though is in taking inspiration not just from the Greeks, (All My Sons even strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action), but also from Ibsen, specifically The Wild Duck, where Hakon Werle’s wealth and influence is built on a crime that his former business partner, Old Ekdal, took the rap for.

There is also a pop at the veracity of the legal justice, (both Ann and brother George (Oliver Johnstone) believe their father is guilty and Joe innocent because the investigation said so), the frustrations, resentments and contradictions of “normal” small town America families, the Bayliss’ and the Lubeys,( though at least they don’t have the back story of the Kellers and the Deevers), are exposed, as are class and education. In the end though the story of a man, (or woman), losing, (or finding), their honour has brought us together for thousands of years (as all you GoT fans know). Hard to imagine anything better.

Of course all that was before we went down the road a week later to see The Death of a Salesman. Crikey.

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