Tag Archives: Noel Coward Theatre

The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre

Lieutenant of Inishmore - Noel Coward Theatre

2018 is becoming quite the year for Martin McDonagh; in January his last major play Hangmen opened in New York taking most of its original London cast, then in late February the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri won two Oscars, and in October his latest play A Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent about Hans Christian Andersen heralds the Bridge Theatre’s autumn season. In the meantime, a beautifully pitched revival of McDonagh’s 2001 play The Lieutenant of Inishmore about a cat-loving terrorist in1990s Ireland is now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre and guaranteed to draw audiences with star Aidan Turner in the leading role.

With a exceptional version of Translations running at the National Theatre, and more Friel to come at the Donmar later this month with their revival of Aristocrats, London is enjoying a mini-Irish season. Across these plays, there is an examination of the changing relations between our two countries, as well as open-ended questions about nationality and language that have shaped both nations over hundreds of years. With Brexit drawing focus once again to the Northern Ireland boarder, this timely combination of plays have concurrent themes about identity formation, conflict and the future development of two countries whose history is inextricable entangled.

McDonagh has always been very astute in capturing the contrasting and multifaceted nature of the individual, delighting in the unexpected foibles and ridiculousness that bring humanity to some of his darkest creations. Often focused on the perpetrators of extreme violence, many of these characters are given an unexpected softer side, so whether its Brendan Gleeson’s hired assassin with a passion for the medieval architecture of Bruges, a former state executioner running a local pub or a cat-loving anarchist, extreme and almost surreal though it can be, within McDonagh’s work there is always a kernel of truth about human behaviour that lurks beneath the surface. However violent their career choices, there is always pride, attachments and fallibility that make them more rounded.

This also serves to emphasise the fate of the many innocents who get caught in the cross-fire, those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, completely outside of the central plot and suffer as a result – be it children, neighbouring cats or racist dwarves. McDonagh’s scenarios have a warped moral dimension to them, ensuring that the bad people tend to pay for their crimes in outrageously violent ways, retaining a reasonably straightforward perspective on good and evil, punishment and justice.

As a very black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore on the surface is essentially a tale of in-fighting between various subsets of a terrorist organisation, a disagreement about the etiquette and degrees of violence to be employed in pursuit of their cause. But the unspoken context here is the fraught aftermath of a colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland that has driven this group of men to seek destructive and murderous means to achieve liberty for the North. McDonagh takes a tongue-in-cheek approach but as each hilarious scene builds to a beautifully pitched comic conclusion, the contextual reality of this era, of the fragility of political peace processes, of generations of people driven to extremist behaviour remains striking.

Set on the Island of Inishmore off the coast of Ireland, teenager Davey delivers the corpse of Donny’s black cat which he found in the road with his head staved in. Unfortunately for Davey, the cat – Wee Thomas – really belongs to Donny’s son Padraic, a crazy and violent terrorist working for the INLA, who instantly breaks off the torture of a drug dealer to rush home to see the cat he adores. Teaming-up with Davey’s sister Mairead who enjoys shooting the eyes out of cattle and pursued by an assassination-squad of INLA colleagues, Padraic’s fury is enflamed by meagre attempts to substitute his beloved moggy for another. But, who really killed Wee Thomas and will anyone live to tell the tale?

There is a huge amount of technical skill involved in creating a show like this, one which mixes an implied menace with an almost cartoon-violence that is deliberately unrealistic enough to prevent the violence overwhelming the humour. There is a kind of joy in the build-up to some of the more extreme aspects of the show, which become darker as the plot unfolds, and Christopher Oram has done an impressive job with some slightly heightened but still ghastly-looking props, particularly in the glorious finale.

The penultimate scene too runs beautifully but is full of carefully timed stage-craft that is considerably more complicated than they make it look. It’s a high-stakes scene, probably the most fraught of the play as all the plot elements come together in a Tarantino-style face-off between the various characters. It’s rare to see something like this on stage because it’s so difficult to accomplish in real-time, but Oram’s team has delivered a series of splatters and explosions that can be triggered at exactly the right moment, and even more importantly, create just the right effect, at the right angle on the set and characters – a not insubstantial achievement.

Tone is equally hard to manage in a show like this, and it can be extremely difficult to make it just black enough without becoming too grim, while keeping the lighter stuff in check so that it doesn’t become too farcical – McDonagh wants you to see a touch of reality in his characters, to believe them capable of their extreme actions, but at the same time to chortle at their ludicrous sensitivities and grasp of morality. Director Michael Grandage has got this exactly right, allowing the story to build in the early scenes, enjoying the sillier moments, while still creating sufficient investment in the characters as we build to the more shocking plot devices.

At less than two hours with an unnecessary and distracting interval, the play has only nine scenes across which a full and engaging plot is presented and concluded. Grandage manages the transitions using the main stage for Donny’s farmhouse, and locating other scenes in front of a curtain, a papier mache and paint affair fashioned to look like the Island of Inishmore from the air. This all works very nicely, maintaining the flow while separating between the moments where characters are in transit from their more rooted and identifiable existence in Donny’s home. It is also hilarious, sometimes overt and silly, while at other times more subtle, with throw-away references or character-traits that add extra layers for those who want to see them.

With the stars of long-running and much-loved TV dramas, it’s (shamefully) all too easy to forget their range of skills and the diversity of their work elsewhere. As Ross Poldark, Aidan Turner became an overnight sensation which four series on shows no signs of abating, but the character offers only a limited outlet for his acting portfolio. With hints that the next season may be the last, this seems like an appropriate time for Turner’s return to the stage, to start thinking about life beyond the tricorn hats and slow-motion horse-riding, and to remind the acting world that he has plenty more to offer. His role in the superb BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None offered a charged and dangerous presence, while here in The Lieutenant of Inishmore he comprehensively proves he also has a talent for comedy.

As Padraic, Turner switches in an instant from violent fiend to cat-loving softie, frequently breaking down into tears even at the thought of any harm befalling his precious puss. His first appearance sets-up the rest of the show, as Padraic tortures a drug dealer suspended upside down from the ceiling, Turner elicits just the right balance of silliness in McDonagh’s text, landing a great line about selling drugs to Protestants and, when he hears of Wee Thomas’s illness, the slightly squeaky and tremulous way he asks to speak to his cat on the phone has the audience in stitches.

Turner’s Padraic is definitely a man with no regard for human life, happy to sacrifice his dad and neighbours for the cause, a man with a proclivity for blowing-up chip shops and an anarchic temper. Turner continually balances a growing menace with the heightened nature of the characterisations and scenario to emphasise the ridiculousness of Padraic’s extremes of hate and love (for cats). A final memory of Padraic winsomely stroking a dead cat while referencing 90s TV show The House of Eliot is an image that will stay with you. Turner is genuinely very funny with a shrewd comic timing and clearly enjoys the whole thing tremendously

Padraic’s dad, played by Denis Conway is wonderfully dry, offering an understated but sharp portrayal of man fearing the wrath of his crazy son but with no more interest in anyone’s life but his own. He plays the straight man in a hilarious double act with Chris Walley’s Davey, as the pair embroil themselves in a number of enjoyably daft schemes to hide Wee Thomas’s death from Padraic. Making his stage debut, Walley is given a terrible curly mullet, of which Davey is inordinately proud, and the actor holds his own very nicely in an impressive ensemble.

The only woman in the story, Charlie Murphy’s Mairead is a cold ruthless attacker of cow’s eyes which she shoots out for practice. A dedicated revolutionary, far braver than anyone else in the show, and proud of her skills as a crack shot from a decent distance, 16-year old Mairead is desperate to join the INLA and has an eye for her hero Padraic. Murphy brings a soldier’s composure to the role of the psychotic youngster with a casual approach to life and death, a cool logic that is both comical and terrifying. You’d never want to cross her but in a world of gun-toting men you also slightly root for her.

With McDonagh and Turner’s names attached to the project, there’ll be no concerns about selling tickets so critical support becomes less necessary, but with press night on Wednesday they’re sure to get it anyway. This version of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is an impressive technical accomplishment supported by very fine performances from the ensemble, that has plenty of layers to unpick. More than anything, it’s just a great shoot-em-up farce, a darkly comic treat with a black black heart. It may be a good year for Martin McDonagh, but with so much of his work available, it’s great for us too.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 8 September, and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1           

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Quiz as State of the Nation Drama – Noel Coward Theatre

Quiz by Johan Persson

When you hold a mirror up to our society what can you see? The obvious things perhaps; an obsession with social media, selfies and surface, the continual loosening of social responsibilities, and a nation divided as its struggles to reconcile its continual attempts to look backwards and forwards at the same time. But look deeper and there are cracks everywhere, in every system, every support service, in every pillar of our social structure, and you start to wonder where did it all go wrong? Our greatest political playwrights have always interpreted the times we live in, and, as Quiz transfers to the West End, James Graham’s insightful reflections on crucial moments in post-war history have fast become a vital resource in understanding who we are.

In a little over a year, Graham has had four highly regarded plays running in the West End, three of which, since September, have been entirely new work. It’s an outstanding achievement, almost without comparison in modern theatre, and after picking up his first Olivier Award last night for Labour of Love (plus a Supporting Actor award for Bertie Carvel’s turn in Ink), this is a good time to reflect on what has been an astonishing year, one in which Graham has found a unique interplay between political purpose and popular style.

This House, which has had a remarkable lifespan since its premiere in 2012 and is currently on national tour, showed us the marked difference between political self-interest and genuine government, where staying in power at all costs outstrips the business of passing legislation for the greatest good. Set in the 1970s at a moment of upheaval that shifted British politics to the right, into Thatcher’s willing arms, and changed it forever, in This House Graham shows us why our democratic system now feels so remote from the people it governs, with constituency representation frequently losing out to individual ambition and Party directive.

This is exactly the theme of Labour of Love, in which Graham pits New against Old Labour in one particular midlands constituency over 20 years to show us the deep division and confliction of purpose that runs through our political parties. When a shiny young man with a bright Ministerial future is parachuted into a safe Labour seat in the mid-1990s, it causes considerable upset for the more traditional left-leaning local constituency office. Over two decades we observe the problems caused by MPs treading water until they can get somewhere better and Labour’s failure to bridge the precipice that still runs down the centre of the Party.

And finally with Ink, Graham explained the rise and rise of the tabloid, and its unshakeable hold on every kind of political and popular thinking. Again, using the crucial period 1969-70 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the newspaper and set its editor Larry Lamb a target to beat its nearest rival, the pair essentially opened Pandora’s Box, unleashing every base and questionable journalistic impulse to create a public appetite for sleaze and scandal we are far from abating even 50 years later. Crucially, Graham shows us, that the fourth estate is an entirely unelected group of people with little but sales figures and click bait in mind, and undergoes almost no scrutiny, but their continual intervention and control of public opinion wields a fearsome power that challenges the independence of many of our oldest institutions.

Collectively, this is a body of work that tells us that much is broken, that the once enviable clarity of our democratic system and freedom of the press have curdled, where the gap between the government and the governed has never felt wider. None of it, Graham suggests is beyond hope, its all still worth fighting for, but that there are crucial moments in history – much like the one we’re living through now – where there is a chance to change things for the better, because getting it wrong will lead to decades of rot. And throughout, Graham asks questions about the power of the individual to effect change, where even the best intentions can forge an unexpected future.

So, to Quiz and the power of the television media to thwart or even misdirect our justice system. Transferring from Chichester where it opened to rave reviews, Quiz is about fluctuating concepts of truth in a world of fake news and trial by television. What does justice mean in this new environment and does it have anything to do with truth and fairness? At the heart of Quiz is a debate about the nature of innocence and the extent to which our legal system, founded on the principle that guilt must be proven beyond doubt, is subject to the highest bidder, where scant circumstantial coincidence can be contorted to suggest an alternative story. Quiz effectively sets the near powerless individual against the might of a TV company with the resources to influence not just the outcome of a trial but also our collective memory of an incident none of us ever saw.

Mention the name Charles Ingram and your first thought will be millionaire cheat. But that perception, Graham argues, has been manufactured by a powerful media of newspapers and television, and embedded by 15 years of mythology. With only a few small tweaks since its Chichester run, Quiz is still as sharp and exciting as it was 6 months ago (see previous review here), presenting the case for the prosecution in the first half and the case for the defence in the second, based on the book Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett (well worth a read if you want more detail on the case).

Getting a West End transfer right is not always easy, but director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones have clearly thought carefully about how best to bring their ¾ -round production into the proscenium arch theatre. Fitting perfectly onto the slightly adapted Noel Coward stage, which has been turned into a TV studio with onstage seating, Jones’s design reflects the exuberant glitz of the TV game show, a brightly lit world of neon cubes, flashing panels and multiple screens to relay the drama from every angle.

Some additions include a new warm-up act, played by the chameleonic Kier Charles, to start the two halves, reinforcing the falsity of the gameshow set-up, nodding to the mask performers wear in public, while crucially (and finally) delivering those pub quiz answers at the start of Act Two which were absent from the Chichester version. But most importantly, the warm-up act creates the tone of the show, the fundamental purpose of which is to bring the audience into the action from the start. This is no passive West End play where you sit back and receive a performance, but through the pub quiz round, an opportunity to appear in the montages and the chance to vote on Ingram’s guilt using the electronic devices attached to every seat, the audience is constantly asked to play along, to think and pass judgement on what you have seen, much as you would if you read the ‘evidence’ in a newspaper.

And you can certainly feel the auditorium responding to Graham’s dramatic techniques more actively than most West End shows. People engage with each other as the baton is handed back to us to make decisions, but also, given the addictive nature of the Millionaire format, people mutter as they try to answer the questions in the reconstructed TV scenes or in the wonderful section where the Ingram’s test their popular culture knowledge by guessing the karaoke tune and identifying classic characters from Coronation Street, almost as if they were watching a game show at home on the sofa. How interesting an NT Live screening of this play would be – introducing the screen element to a concept that deliberately comments on how we use screens to make cursory assessments of truth and justice.

Graham’s work is always full of wonderfully observed pop culture references and a warm nostalgia for the cultural past, but in Quiz these really come into their own, and you can feel the audience’s delight as Graham walks us through the wider context of the Ingram case. The fantastic gameshow montage is still a high point, and while Brucie may have been excised to make way for other content, there is still so much charm in the recreated version of The Price is Right and Bullseye, now even more poignant given the passing of the great Jim Bowen since the Chichester run. And while you can feel Graham gleefully revelling in his childhood memories, it also evokes the same connection for much of the room, of a simpler time that was clearly the forerunner of the madness of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and our more recent obsession with constructed reality TV.

Daniel Evans’s direction is light and effortless, with the action moving so effortlessly that 2.5 hours speeds by. But the fun elements of the story remain perfectly in balance with the play’s serious purpose, so the tension builds carefully in the Millionaire scenes and there are several poignant moments where the once colourful world is starkly lit by Tim Lutkin as the consequences of the action and the real nature of ‘justice’ are truly felt.

The performances have deepened since the earlier run, and Kier Charles almost steals the show with his hilarious portrayal of a collection of much-loved TV hosts. From Leslie Crowther and Bowen to Chris Tarrant, Charles clearly relishes every moment, amplifying the tics and mannerisms of each of these well-loved presenters with often hilarious results. Gavin Spokes as Major Ingram has found greater depths of emotion in the role, so that now the damaging effects of his time in the hot seat are considerably more poignant, while quiz-loving Diana played by Stephanie Street is a tad more ambiguous.

Two further notable points also emerge from the West End run of Quiz ; first that London audiences are considerably more cynical than those in Chichester, and while there is a swing towards Not Guilty after the second half, the statistics for recent performances show it is far closer to 50:50 than it was in West Sussex; Second, in reality the way justice is dispensed can be wildly disproportionate to the crime committed. While the Ingrams may have been given relatively short suspended sentences to accompany their guilty verdicts with the need for justice to ‘seen to be done’, the wider response was ludicrous. Graham leaves us to question whether they really deserved to be hounded by the press and the public everywhere they went, to have their children bullied at school, to have their pets shot and for Charles Ingram’s much-loved army career to be terminated, all for supposedly cheating on a quiz show? Multiple lives irreparably damaged for arguably a minor infraction?

Like the plays that have gone before, Graham has taken a key moment in TV history and asked us to think more carefully about what it means and why it set society on a new, less worthy, path. Justice doesn’t begin and end in court rooms any more, and while the media can whip up a frenzy and bring the full might of the mob down on the powerless individual, there seems to be little hope of fairness. If you leave this show discussing the case and the way in which we all jump to conclusions, then Graham has done his job because challenging how we all respond to the institutions that wield societal power is the only way to improve them. As for Quiz itself, as a theatrical experience, let’s leave the final word to Jim Bowen – super, smashing, great!

Quiz is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June. Tickets start at £15 with day seats available for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Labour of Love – Noel Coward Theatre

Martin Freeman, Tamsin Grieg and James Graham, Labour of Love

More than 90 years since its first ever period in government, the Labour Party has spent the majority of its existence in opposition and riven by immobilising debates about whether it should honour its left-wing roots or move towards a central populist position. Such intricate divisions are not the preserve of Labour of course – The Conservative Party has torn itself to pieces arguing about Europe on many occasions – but within Labour a fascinating clash of fundamental idealism is a constant feature, and one which writer James Graham looks to explore in his insightful new play Labour of Love.

In a reasonably short time, Graham has become one of our leading proponents of political theatre, commenting not just on the Parliamentary system in plays like This House, but also the wider Establishment in his huge 2017 hit Ink about the early days of The Sun, as well as the forthcoming examination of the television media in Quiz. Graham’s work focuses on crucial moments of change and the ripples that these cause decades later. It always starts with an institution holding power in a present-day scenario and attempts to unpick the various strands that brought about this influence, whether it be the ongoing power of tabloid journalism, or in the case of Labour of Love, understanding the anatomy of a major political party whose current resurgence could be about to break a century-old cycle of behaviour.

The play is set in a safe Labour constituency, examining 27 years of party history using a reverse chronology structure in Act One to take MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) from results night in the 2017 General Election, right back to his very first win in 1990, with pit stops in 2010 and 2003, while Act Two starts in 1990 and takes the audience right back up to date. And while that sounds rather dry, at the play’s heart is the developing relationship between the moderniser Lyons, a protege of the Blair years, and his election agent Jean (Tamsin Greig), wife of the hard-line leftist MP he replaced.

At the start of the play David and Jean have the exasperated affection of years spent sparring with one another, her keeping the show on the road and challenging his abandonment of party tradition, while David has enjoyed the rollercoaster of Westminster while trying to convince his constituents that being electable and being Labour are not mutually exclusive. Why these people have become who they are and the exact status of their combative relationship is slowly revealed as we travel back to their beginning in an attempt to understand what their future will be.

One of the things that distinguishes Graham as a writer is his ability to construct plays that maintain their narrative drive, drawing the audience into the humanity of his characters while still making significant observations about where power lies in our society. But rather than hammering home his message, Graham utilises a light touch approach to the politics, wrapping it in humour and careful character development.

Construction may seem a basic skill for a playwright, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Graham is a master at controlling an unfolding story and creating interlocking scenarios that work together to form a complete picture. Ink used a series of overlapping scenes, music segments and abstract elements to conjure up the world of 60s journalism, while in Labour of Love, Graham has four semi-independent stopping points, each with their own mini-plot and cliff-hanger, resolved in the second half, so by the end these fleeting visits to each decisive moment in Labour’s recent history have also satisfactorily coloured-in the 27 years of Jean and David’s lives as well.

Normally you need only turn on the news to see the kind of comical and ridiculous behaviour from our politicians you would never believe if it was on stage, but Labour of Love mines a long satirical traditional of holding our leading officers to account. It is a political farce with plenty of humour and packed-full of audience-pleasing and sharply observed references to pop culture that litter the three decades in which the play takes place. Some of the high points include a complaint from Jean that northerners always get the rough end of the deal, ‘it’s like Game of Thrones’ she quips, and waiting for a fax machine to reveal if David has betrayed the local party in the leadership election. The carefully chosen music from D:Ream’s ‘Thing Will Only Get Better’ to Britney Spears ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ will  also take you right back in an instant to the four eras created on stage.

Supporting this is Lee Newby’s purposefully drab constituency office set which uses the stage revolve to move between decades. It’s soulless and even in 1990 well worn, grey floor tiles and the same drawer that doesn’t open properly for 30 years. But it’s in the tiny details that the changing period comes to life as fax machines give way to computers with email, boxy televisions with actual Teletext (leading to one audience cry of “bring it back”) become flatscreens, and crucially the image of the then Labour leader changes, framed on the office wall with Jeremy Corbyn looking quite regal in his 2017 photograph – an image clearly chosen with particular care to emphasis his role in debate between left and centre that continues to divide his party while whipping up a popular acclaim.

At the centre of all of this is Tamsin Greig playing Jean Whittaker, replacing Sarah Lancashire at relatively short-notice which led to a week of previews being cut. None of the backstage drama is evident though, and Grieg makes it feel like the part was written especially for her. Old Labour to the core, Jean is both a thorn in David’s side and the person keeping him afloat, never missing an opportunity to score a point. But across the years we see she develops a respect and care for him that becomes surprisingly touching, and under the prickly and deeply sarcastic demeanour, Grieg reveals Jean’s deeper emotions emerging from a lifetime of disappointments and limited opportunities for herself as she serves a succession of argumentative men.

Jean is also passionately devoted to the needs of the community, rather than the demands of the central party, which leads to much of the division with David, giving her a combative shell. But she is also the link between the MP and the grass roots support which she navigates with skill, and Grieg offers a picture of an incredibly smart woman, easily outwitting the smug Londoners, and teaching them the difference between party power and electoral support.

Martin Freeman’s David is actually a genuinely nice man, hugely out of his depth in the safe seat he’s parachuted into. New Labour through and through he’s passionate about making his party electable and frequently campaigns for the compromises needed to win and keep power in Number 10. The pull of local and national politics, is embodied in Freeman’s performance as David struggles to balance the growing loyalty he develops to the people he represents and his greater ambitions for personal authority and a Cabinet role.

As the years go by – or in this case backwards and then forwards again – Freeman shows how the optimism of David’s first election fades over the years, becoming not quite jaded but more aware of the cyclical nature of power and how quickly new initiatives fail, with pointed reference to the closure of a mine that became a data centre which itself became redundant. Freeman’s David is someone trying to do his best in the wrong constituency, torn between an expectant future and the grim reality of brief influence and then obscurity. ‘I’d better brush up on my Paso Doble’ he remarks as the wrong kind of glittery future beckons.

Arguably the supporting characters are little more than sketched, but Rachael Stirling has lots of fun playing David’s snobby London wife Elizabeth, who sneers at his lack of ambition, frequently going head-to-head with Jean and losing. Susan Wokoma and Dickon Tyrrell add texture as grassroots party members who clash with David, but help to create the context against which the two leads exist.

With press night tomorrow, the flow and comic timing – already working well – can only tighten as the run continues. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the impact of Ink, one of those rare plays that just captures the imagination, the extra magic that separates the 5-star show from the plethora of 4s, but Labour of Love remains a well-constructed and perceptive comedy that explains why political parties so often tear themselves apart. James Graham is fast establishing himself as our leading political playwright, and Labour of Love is full of insight, deep research and with Graham’s distinctive ability to entertainingly interpret post-war history.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December 2017. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culuralcap1


Death of a Salesman – Noel Coward Theatre

Classic American theatre seems to be riding high in the West End at the moment with some stellar productions achieving critical acclaim and winning handfuls of awards. With the Young Vic’s productions of A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson heading to New York in 2016 and the monumental A View From the Bridge with Mark Strong juggernauting into the West End and now heading to Broadway from October, not to mention Damien Lewis’s appearance in American Buffalo, clearly London is offering leading interpretations of US theatre. In the year of Arthur Miller’s centenary there has probably been no better time to see top-notch productions of his famous plays including the West End transfer of the RSC’s Death of a Salesman.

Willy Loman is a travelling salesman living in an increasingly urbanised district of New York, returning home one day to find his two grown-up sons have come to stay and long-held frustrations soon bubble over. But Willy’s grasp of time has begun to slip meaning he frequently slides back and forth between the present and a variety of happy times he recalls raising his favourite son Biff, a one-time High School American football star who squandered any promise he once had. Biff, now 34, is home to try and make his latest big idea happen, going into business with his brother Happy, if only they could raise the capital. Happy is an inveterate womaniser constantly in the shadow of his elder brother, even though he has fulfilled all the dreams is family once had for his sibling. Over the course of 24 hours the Loman’s must face the truth about themselves and each other before a very different future is left open to them.

The critics have been incredibly enthusiastic about this production and while I wouldn’t entirely disagree with them, seeing a play for the first time is a different experience. Comparison with the recent multi-award winning version of A View from the Bridge, which I also saw for the first time, at the Young Vic (and again at the Wyndhams) means Death of a Salesman isn’t quite in the same league. So while the main critics may say this is the finest production they’ve seen, I felt it took a little too long to get going and to establish the underlying tension within the family, whereas it was immediate in A View from the Bridge and the inevitability of the outcome drove the action more obviously. I’m splitting hairs of course, we’re talking about the difference between a 4 and 5 star production but it’s worth considering how consistent critics are in how they award those coveted marks.

Greg Doran is pretty good at creating tension and drive within (overly) familiar Shakespeare plays and once you start to get a sense of who everyone is the pace picks up nicely, wringing engaging drama from the events of this day. The movement between past and present, as Willy’s mind re-enacts key moments of contentment with his, then, teenage sons is cleverly handled at the front of the stage, while the actors convincingly offer lighter versions of their older selves. Design and projection are cleverly incorporated into Willy’s memories, offering a more pastoral and idyllic feel to the past when a large tree cast a light shadow on the Loman house and the density of the surrounding apartment blocks becomes transparent, suggesting the light and space that once existed in this place. How much of this romantic past is true the production doesn’t entirely explore, however, and although it seems Miller hasn’t clarified it in the text, it might have been interesting to make these sequences even more dreamlike and suggest Willy is taking refuge in an idealised version of the past that never existed. What if Willy wasn’t the loving father he’s suggesting in these flashbacks and the tension with his sons in the present reflects his failure and their unwillingness to forgive?

Antony Sher’s performance is very good, playing Willy as a man unable to keep the threads of his life together and struggling to deal with the changed circumstances that time has brought. Like his son, when once he was the ‘star player’ in the office, he can no longer compete with the younger generation and new techniques that drives his work as a salesman. Those difficulties peak in repeated confrontation with his sons and Sher seems constantly on the edge of agitated outbursts which seem to be as much about the frustrated inaction of his children as his own failure to be the man he once thinks he was. There seem to be a number of ways to play Willy, and Sher goes for anger but perhaps doesn’t quite give enough sense of the loneliness of his job or evoke too much pity from the audience.

Biff is possibly more interesting a character than his father whose failures he somehow mirrors. Alex Hassell gives him an interesting air of disappointment and pain at being unable to fulfil his family’s early expectations of him. Biff has gone from job to job, never settled down and now at 34 is finding doors closing very quickly. There’s an interesting cross-over with Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof whose early sporting career was also curtailed by the same self-destructive impulses that drive Biff to unnecessarily destroy opportunities that come his way. Brick also has a similarly love-hate relationship with his father where the two can only exist when they’re not together, because home reminds Brick and Biff of how much they’ve lost.

Harriet Walter gives good support as matriarch Linda, a classic Miller woman, like Beatrice in A View from the Bridge, who stands back and almost allows events to unfold despite realising the consequences. There is a resignation in Walter’s performance and devotion to her husband’s needs that means she will sacrifice seeing her sons to maintain his happiness – again as Beatrice rejects Catherine to retain Eddie.  Happy Loman meanwhile (Sam Marks) is looking for his family’s attention and clearly his frequent affairs are a manifestation of the anonymity and lack of love he feels at home.

The open-fronted two story house design works fairly well, particularly for the first half where most of the scenes are set in the kitchen or bedroom, but it dominates the stage so entirely that it crushes a lot of external scenes into the small space at the front of the stage, which is harder to see from the upper levels of the theatre. While the looming house is a constant reminder that these people can never escape the way their family name and shared history defines them, something a little more flexible, such as a rotating stage would have given them more space to create offices and restaurants as characters interact with the wider world, and offered a little more variety in the visuals.

Death of a Salesman is a classic of American theatre and arguably Miller’s most famous play. This RSC production certainly gives the audience plenty to think about as it examines the curdling of the American dream. As Willy and Linda edge closer to finally owning their own home, they realise the thing they’ve worked their whole lives doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While this may not quite have that epic sense of inevitable tragedy offered by Ivo Van Hove’s stripped back A View from the Bridge, this version of Death of a Salesman examines many similar themes. Reasonably priced tickets are available from Last Minute and it’s worth catching before the run ends; it’s the second best Miller production you’ll see this year.

Death of a Salesman is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 July. Tickets start at £12.25, while Last Minute also has tickets for £22.50 for the Upper Circle. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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