Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic review *****

Death of a Salesman

Young Vic, 17th May 2019

For those of you who, understandably, don’t have the time or inclination to filter through the vast opportunity set that is the London “subsidised” theatre sector and just want to spend your hard-earned coin on a proven theatrical production then the next few months is shaping up nicely. The following all have the Tourist’s cast iron guarantee seal of approval and, more importantly that of proper critics and audiences, so you can buy without fear of disappointment. Of course you must first check the subject is up your Strasse but the execution, in all the below cases, is top notch.

  • Sweat at the Gielgud Theatre. Lynn Nottage’s brilliant dissection of what’s wrong in America. Decently discounted for performances in the next couple of weeks.
  • The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre. Three peerless actors in a history of the Lehman dynasty. Though here you have to pay up for the rest of the run.
  • Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Theatrical magic telling the story of Joe Simpson’s agonising descent down a mountain. A little bit of discounting for the beginning of the run in November.
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre. More theatrical magic condensing Louis de Bernieres sprawling novel about love and war. Again there are some offers which make this very good value for money.
  • Equus at the Trafalgar Studios. A mesmerising production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play about a young man wth an unhealthy obsession with horses and his psychologist saviour.
  • The Son at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Florian Zeller’s gripping new play about a depressed teen. Marginal discounting in August.
  • Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. Though be sure you like Ibsen. A rare West End bargain.

However topping all of this is the just announced transfer of the Young Vic Death of a Salesman to the Piccadilly Theatre from end October. Of course you could keep an eye out for returns on the day for the sold out run at the Young Vic or better still you could have listened to the Tourist months ago when he said this would be the play of the year. Because it is. But whatever you do don’t miss it.

And one final polite request before I tell you why it is so good. Bag some tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. Just seen it. Nick Hytner has only gone and done it again. Reimaging Shakespeare for our world, with a twist. I don’t care if you are “bored” by Shakespeare. You won’t be here. I am going to go again.

Oh and if I had to pick one sure fire winner from what’s coming up it would be Robert Icke’s version of The Doctor at the Almeida with Juliet Stevenson.

Right finally back to The Death of a Salesman. Now, as any fool knows, this is Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It is Mr TFP’s favourite play. Wise man. Mrs TFP now knows why. As does the SO who, unusually, would fully endorse my 5* opinion. And this production shows the play off to maximum effect.

The gap between what is real and what Willy Loman imagines, between what Willy, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, think they can be and what they are is, a metaphor for the souring of the American Dream, that repeatedly and methodically bashes you over the head until it, as it should, hurts. But the personal tragedy should also be, as it is here, a massive emotional rush, as we see Willy fall apart, Linda Loman watching on, with a love that still cannot save him, Biff finally voicing his own pain and Happy trying to pretend his way out of his own disappointments. To elevate this into the drama stratosphere however, a director and creative team have to completely embrace Miller’s formal innovation. Being the stuff that goes on in Willy’s head. After all the original title for the play was The Inside of His Head. Especially all the memories from the past in Willy’s long first act reverie after he returns from his failed sales trip, (for which dreaming, personally, I blame the cheese sandwich).

Which Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cornwell, with the not inconsiderable assistance of Anna Fleischle’s set design, the barest, illuminated floating outlines of the Loman house, the Wagner office, Boston hotel room, Frank’s Chop House, the accompanying lighting design of Aideen Malone, Carolyn Downing’s sound and, especially, the composition of Femi Temowo. Miller specified a flute: this production delivers much, much more musically. Anna Fleischle writes bravely in the programme of how her own father’s suicide in Munich when she was in her 20’s and he, like Willy, in his 5o’s, informed her intention to capture the space between the real and the illusory.

With sound, light and held poses delineating the flashbacks in Willy’s head, visible to those around him as he mumbles t0 the past, ad especially his big brother Uncle Ben, the next thing we need is a sympathetic Willy. This we get from Wendell Pierce. Now not being a big consumer of US TV drama, (and never having made it beyond series 1 of The Wire – still on the bucket list), and never, as far as I can work out, having seen any of his film performances, the Tourist had no real expectation about Mr Pierce going in. If I am honest I would say I marginally preferred the last Willy I saw, Don Warrington, in the Royal Exchange production directed by Sarah Frankcom. Mr Warrington is a big man, his Willy prouder (as it were), crushed by the disappointment off his life. Wendell Pierce by contrast, in his slightly too big suit, straining to hear the voices from the past, still clutching at imagined opportunities to turn his, or Biff’s, or Happy’s, lives towards success, clinging to the idea of his being “well liked”, is a far more vulnerable Willy, perhaps closer to the text.

His portrayal leaves substantial scope for Sharon D Clarke to show us just how “good” a person Linda is. Whether acting or singing, Ms Grant is a force of nature. It’s what she holds back you see. When she finally lets rip at the boys after they abandon Willy at the restaurant, banging the table as she commands, “attention must be paid”, and then, when she asks Willy for forgiveness for not being able to cry at the bare funeral, I was in bits. Still am writing this.

And, as if that wasn’t enough there is Arinze Kene’s Biff. Now, as anyone who has seen Mr Kene on stage will know, this young man is prodigiously talented. As both a performer, and as he showed with Misty, as a writer. And Biff Loman might just be the greatest “supporting” actor male role in C20 theatre. As Arinze Kene shows here. When he finally rounds on Willy, for the witnessed sin with the Woman, I confess I was bloody scared. I am guessing that for Mr Kene some of Biff’s situation is personal. I gather that the 14 year old Arinze first got the acting bug when he stumbled into a workshop at the Arcola by accident. Yet another reason to thank the Arcola and Mehmet Ergen

There are multiple reasons why casting the Loman’s as an African-American family in pre-Civil Rights America works, but the cumulative frustration that crushes Biff as he realises that racism lies behind his disappointments, is one of the most powerful. All done with context and one line left hanging, (for that is the only liberty Marianne Elliot has taken with the text). How anyone will ever revert to a white Loman family after this, (and a near similar thesis for the Royal Exchange production), stumps me. Even the story of Ben making his fortune in Africa in a diamond mine takes on a whole new perspective.

Which just leaves Martins Imhangbe to complete the family quartet. Now Happy, as a role, can suffer against the dazzling characterisations of his Dad, Mum and Bro. Not here though. Mr Imhangbe, who impressed in An Adventure at the Bush, nailed Happy’s swagger, confidence and conciliatory optimism, whilst still recognising his own ambition is slowly being diminished.

The rest of the cast doesn’t disappoint when they are called upon in their key scenes: Trevor Cooper’s Charley when he lends money to an ungrateful Willy, now taking on an even sharper edge; Joseph Mydell imperiously striding off stage and up the aisle as Willy calls after the “ghost” of Ben; Ian Bonar as Bernard, now the lawyer, interrogating Willy as to why Biff flunked summer school, and then again as the very faintly disparaging waiter; Matthew Seadon-Young as the visibly flinching Howard when an humiliated Willy begs him for a desk job and all he wants to do is show off his new fangled tape recorder; Maggie Service as the indelicate, and white, Woman; and Jennifer Saayang and Nenda Neurer as the playful Miss Forsythe and her friend Letta.

Like I say. Tourist’s favourite play so far this year. As he thought it would be. Don’t miss it.

Company at the Gielgud theatre review ****

Company

Gielgud Theatre, 29th November 2018

Regular readers will know that the Tourist doesn’t like musicals. However, with Company now ranking alongside Follies, Caroline, Or Change, Groundhog Day, Gypsy, Girl From the North Country, Junkyard and White Teeth, the list of exceptions to the rule is growing alarmingly long. Looks like I may need to revise my opinion. Maybe I just don’t like crap musicals. Or, in a witlessly circular way, just musicals I don’t like.

Company, as you can read at great length elsewhere, is very far from being crap. It’s Sondheim for a start. With a twist as the, artistically and commercially, gifted Marianne Elliott (Angels in America, Curious Incident, War Horse) has inverted the story casting Bobbie (Rosalie Craig, there she is) as a single, female thirty-something mulling the “attractions’ of a life of domestic, married bliss. All done with the blessing and assistance of Lord Sir Stephen S, (well he would be if he were British), who is notoriously, and rightly, possessive about his work. And a trademark, stunning multi-neon, multi-light box design a la Curious Incident from Bunny Christie that could even accommodate a bigger stage.

Now there were still one or two moments when the Tourist’s anti-musical radar started twitching. A fair few of the c(C)ompany dance routines were a little too slick, with choreographed “leaning in” and the suspicion of jazz hands. The camp quotient meter lurched close to the red on occasions. Some of the dialogue seemed a little workaday in places. I am probably alone in failing to understand why Patti LuPone, playing Joanne, is a legend, or maybe the cliche of hard-bitten Broadway broad is just not my bag.

But the music, here played by a bad-ass band under musical supervisor and conductor Joel Fram, with its motifs, repetitions, parodies, consistent surprises, and the lyrics, intelligent, arch, acerbic, funny, thoughtful, wistful, put it into a different league from the fluffy, zero to hero, musical norm. It’s not Chekhov, but unlike what I think of as most musicals, it does ring true to life. It doesn’t have a plot or chronology to speak of, rehearsing Bobbie’s central dilemma over and over again, with different partners and different couples, it doesn’t resolve and it certainly isn’t any sort of “genre”. In fact I can see why, in its garish expressionism, why some punters think this production is all actually going on inside Bobbie’s head.

SS, together with book-writer George Furth, set their musical in the New York of 1970, and built it around nine linked scenes that Furth had previously created for a play. “The increasing difficulty of making emotional connections in an increasingly dehumanised society”. That was how SS described the theme at that time. Marianne Elliot has stuck with the setting, but by inverting the gender of the protagonist, (and many of the gender roles in the couples who come together to give her a surprise 35th birthday party), she brings it bang up to date. Mind you, given extended single-dom, Tinder and the quest for on-line perfection, maybe the world has moved closer to the theme. Don’t ask me, this sort of caper is miles outside of my comfort zone, but Company still struck chords, and not just musically, ta-dah. Anyway throwing the so-called “biological clock” into the mix is a master-stroke. The personal is still political.

There are some absolutely stunning set pieces, in part due to illusionist Chris Fisher, lighting design of Neil Austin and choreography and dance routines of Liam Steel and Sam Davies. Bobbie’s Tardis of an apartment, the street and subway scenes, Another Hundred People, the party games, Company and What Would I Do Without You, the daily routine of living together and the imagined future, (this is where the babies come in), in instrumental Tick Tock with the procession of Bobby body doubles, Jamie’s (Jonathan Bailey, brilliant, again) altar-jilting of Paul (Alex Gaumond), Getting Married Today, the barbershop trio of You Could Drive A Person Crazy (the three boyfriends now being PJ, Andy and Theo),

That’s All I Can Remember. Oh hang that’s not a song that’s just a remark. Whatever. Not knowing the songs or the story, such as it is, means I am not a particularly reliable correspondent but I can assure you that you can believe the positive reviews.

Now Rosalie Craig can sing. And she can dance. But best of all she can act, as the Tourist knows from her turns as Rosalind in the Polly Findlay NT As You Like It alongside Patsy Ferran, and as Polly in the NT Threepenny Opera. Here she plays Bobbie as a wry, detached, almost observer, of her own life, (is it a dream?), occasionally breaking out into a more impassioned soliloquy, firstly in Marry Me A Little and then, most vehemently, in the finale Being Alive. She humours her friends, accepting their foibles, justifications and disappointments and accepting with good humour their attempts to couple her up. but you always sense her reticence in embracing an unknown future when compared to her spirited past and predictable present. Her red dress, and forgive me for the crass and cliched observation, her flame-red hair, make her the focus of attention even when the action is flowing around her. Bobbie’s ambivalence towards coupledom is always present.

Whilst I may not have been entirely convinced by Joanne as performed I see exactly why the character is necessary. With Bobby now as Bobbie, the forceful and intelligent, if somewhat embittered, older woman serves as both guardian and warning. Gavin Spokes, (I wondered where I has seen him last – as the unfortunate Major Ingram in James Graham’s Quiz), as Harry gives Mel Giedroyc, as wife Sarah, a run for her money in the hamming it up stakes. Both are very funny. I was also struck by Jennifer Saayeng’s uneasy Jenny, Ashley Campbell’s conflicted Peter and Daisy Maywood’s haughty Susan but this really is a fine ensemble.

From what I read Company always wows audiences and critics when it is performed, from its first run through many major revivals. It’s easy to see why. If it wasn’t for that Hamilton caper this Elliott/Harper production would sweep up all the musical awards for 2018. I wonder, when it gets its next major UK or US outing (for it is off, of course, to Broadway next year), whether anyone would dare return to Bobby.

Plenty of seats left for the remainder of the now extended run to end March. The prices they are charging for the best seats are in the category of “you’re sh*tting me” but for once it might be worth it and, if you want to, or have to, go cheaper, the Gielgud is not the worst of the West End theatres for sight-lines and legroom. Whatever you do through, don’t miss it. Even if, like me, you hate musicals!!!