It has only been a brief few months since I watched and reviewed an Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons online, but such is the power of this modern classic play that a live rendering on a real stage held an appeal which proved justified. Opening their spring season with a bang, the Queens Theatre, Hornchurch’s classy production has clearly stated reflections on the connections between business and warfare. This intense drama has become timely in ways that the director and cast would have found it hard to foresee when they took on the project; in that respect alone, it is more than a play for our times.
Miller’s first big success came in the late 1940s looking back to recent events (based on reality by all accounts) of things that had happened during World War 2. A successful manufacturing firm knowingly supplies faulty cylinder heads causing the deaths of a number of pilots. One of the manufacturers goes to jail, the other is exonerated. Miller’s play focuses on the repercussions for the latter, Joe Keller, who is living with the guilt, and of his family who are suffering the consequences. To make their plight worse their own eldest son, Larry, has gone missing in action and is presumed dead by all except his mother Kate who stubbornly and heartbreakingly clings on to the belief that he will turn up. Meanwhile younger son Chris has fallen for Larry’s girlfriend Ann, and she in turn is harbouring a deep dark secret about to be exposed by the arrival of her brother George. Thus, Miller has constructed an intimate four way tragedy which plays out over the events of one day and night with serious consequences for all. Events occur in an “American Dream” neighbourhood though all its inhabitants seem to have their own minor tragedies to cope with. Set against the Kellers’ repressed troubles these are, however, small scale in comparison.
For a play about hiding in the shadows, it is an interesting choice of Miller’s to have everything happening outside mostly on a bright sunny day following a storm the night before, shown in this production in a brief prologue. During this the memorial apple tree to the missing/dead son has blown down and for the first half lies as a broken and shattered symbol at the apex of designer Amy Jane Cook’s diamond shaped set which echoes the configuration of the playing field of the great American pastime, baseball. Symbolically cleared away at the start of the second half by younger son Chris this should herald the start of a new era but the past is always lurking in the background even if it is no longer front and centre. Revelation after revelation follows driving this modern day Greek tragedy to an inevitable conclusion. Douglas Rintoul’s clear though often nuanced direction means that, even if you know what happens, it still has the power to shock and Stephen Pemble’s scintillating lighting design certainly enhances the power of the piece.
The production has already garnered accolades from Off West End.com in the form of nominations for the Offies with classy performances by two of the leading performers. David Hounslow gives an excellent account of Keller Senior the patriarch with feet of clay – especially in the last third of the play where his carefully curated existence is torn apart. Bluster soon turns to agonised pleading and despair and the actor delineates the character’s mounting horror in expert fashion. Equally compelling, and presenting the opposing stream of argument, is Oliver Hembrough as Chris, who realises with mounting horror the provenance of the money on which he is living. I was slightly less convinced by Eve Matheson’s Kate – though the performance was certainly more than competent. The character’s mixture of acquiescence and defiance is a difficult one to get right and although the performance came close it didn’t, for me, always ring true. Kibong Tanji seemed a mite sophisticated to allow her misogynistic brother (Nathan Ives-Moiba) to order her around – even if it is 1947.
With the effects of war prominently in our minds at the moment, Miller’s play is fortuitously revived and, especially if it is a drama that you don’t know, is well worth visiting either in Essex or in Suffolk. When the phase “timeless drama” is being bandied about this is the sort of play/production which sheds light on why that designation is important.