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All My Sons

by on 24 March 2019

Perfect Tension

All My Sons

by Arthur Miller

Richmond Shakespeare Society, Marry Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, until 30th March

a review by Matthew Grierson

The Keller family may not be perfect, but the three performers who bring them to life in RSS’s All My Sons are.

Miller’s domestic drama is set in suburban Ohio in the aftermath of the Second World War, and pays close attention to its everyday detail and vernacular before plunging into lake-like depths. Yet never do these transitions from banality to intensity feel unnatural, such is the carefully modulated direction and the lightness of touch with which the cast handles the heavyweight material.

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As he is introduced to us, Joe Keller seems the godparent of the neighbourhood, play-acting police chief for local kids such as Wilhelmina Stringer’s charming ‘Bert’. However, through Simon Bickerstaffe’s steady, nuanced performance, we gradually understand the troubles that beset Joe, and even as he squanders the sympathy of his family he retains ours, making for compulsive viewing. In particular, we see why he feels so paternal to children not his own, and why they in turn have come to associate him with the law: the jail that ‘Bert’ imagines him in charge of becomes the prison in which his previous decisions have trapped him, and the over the course of the play we learn how confined he actually is.

Miller’s deft deployment of the classical unities helps effect this confinement. The action is limited to one time and space, 24 hours in the Kellers’ yard, structuring the piece as a series of disclosures that gradually but inexorably move the narrative towards its sad conclusion. There is also unity of subject, in that although the play seems at first concerned with missing son Larry, who never returned from the hostilities, it then opens up the possibility that Joe is implicated in an industrial scandal for which business partner Steve Deever ended up in jail, before finally revealing the two events to be intimately connected.

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This tragic movement is reinforced by the way the play entertains a Sophoclean view of fate without ever labouring it. Faith in superstition is playfully ascribed to chirpy, guileless neighbour Frank Lubey (Emilio Cavaciuti), who draws up a horoscope proclaiming that Larry is still alive, keeping the concept of fate in view while ironically misreading it as postwar optimism. Kate – Larry’s mother, Joe’s wife –insists on believing such astrology, her need to imagine her son’s return being shown in the veiled desperation of Dorothy Duffy’s faultless characterisation. While she and Frank are ultimately proved wrong, fate is nonetheless closing in on the family as a grim consequence of Joe’s past actions.

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That all this drama unfolds over the course of a day might require that we not simply suspend our disbelief, rather abandon it entirely. But the conviction of Mair Graham’s tight direction honours the script’s fine balance between realism and the tragic tradition. The action moves freely and easily as it needs to, but can turn on a dime to become tense and confrontational. We see this, for instance, in an exchange between Sue Bayliss (Claire Driver), the doctor’s wife, and Ann Deever (Sarah Imran), former sweetheart of Larry who is now engaged to younger Keller brother Chris: what begins as pleasant small talk between the two women quickly but imperceptibly shifts into an awkward stand-off, with each positioning themselves at either downstage corner. Similarly well handled is the reappearance of Ann’s brother, George (Ben Willows), who swiftly escalates an argument with Chris before being mollified by the appearance of Kate, who treats him as though he were her own missing son, returned at last. When Joe emerges onto the porch once more, though, the temperature on stage noticeably drops.

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Though the weight of the play does not fall on them as it does on the Kellers, Imran and Willows give able support as the Deevers. Under the shadow of his father’s imprisonment, George is an embittered contrast to Chris, but being a newly qualified lawyer is able to tell the Kellers some difficult truths, which Willows plays with convincingly awkward authority. As Ann, Imran portrays a character resolute to move on from Larry while maintaining good relations with her own family and her fiancé’s. It would have helped if she could have conveyed more of the burden she carries throughout the play in the shape of Larry’s last letter – deploying this like an oracle towards the end of the play, she has given little indication over the previous two or so hours of having to nurse the terrible secret it contains. There is no doubt, though, that the love she expresses for Chris is genuine, and one of the most tender moments of the play is the kisses they steal when alone together.

But the breakout star of the production is surely Jack Lumb as the affable, easygoing Chris Keller. Unlike the rest of the characters, Chris is upfront about his failings – having lost most of the unit he led in Europe – and so as the others’ secrets emerge we experience them through his reactions. Indeed, his is the character that undergoes the greatest transformation in the course of the play, and Lumb completely sells it. From boy next door to heartbroken son, no line reading or gesture is misjudged, and in technique and affect alike he proves himself equal to the impressive Bickerstaffe and Duffy as his parents.

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With such a strong trio at the heart of the play, it’s not easy for the smaller parts to shine, although as Sue Bayliss, Driver definitely holds her own. Dr Bayliss (John Mortley) and Lydia Lubey (Heloise Plumley) meanwhile are essentially comic sketches, there to supply the lighter beats, so have less room for manoeuvre. The former in particular is not helped by his struggles with the American accent, something sadly emphasised by the otherwise uniform quality of the cast in this regard. At least he gets some good lines.

What remains perfect, though, is the way that Miller writes human imperfections¬ and Graham orchestrates them. The space of Hazel Ashworth’s simple, angled set – sky, house, yard and trees – together with period music and projections, form a fine package in which this excellent production is presented.

Matthew Grierson
March 2019

Photography by Rachael Burnham

From → Drama, Reviews

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