Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
Tensions mount among the young: Chris (Jimmy Proctor), George (George Heynes) and his sister Ann (Julie-Ann Randell). Pictures: Richard Smith Photograpy
All My Sons
The Loft Theatre, Leamington
THE Loft has a wondrous gift for delivering professional standards across a wealth of repertoire: tragedy, comedy, historical. But stumbling across Arthur Miller’s second play and first triumph All My Sons was a particular revelation for director Gus MacDonald.
‘When I see a play described as a “classic of its time” I tend to think’, says MacDonald, ‘of something “worthy” that was good in its day but is probably now well past its sell-by date and high in its yawn factor’. But when a few years ago he saw the latest production in London of All My Sons, he admits, ‘I was totally knocked out by the whole thing.’
Now MacDonald himself has given us another treasure from the Loft, directing a new staging of All My Sons that looks good, is intimate, edge of seat and profoundly intense and gripping.
The story centres round Joe Keller (Tom O’Connor), a self-made American minor tycoon who has a grim secret. He himself authorised the shipping out to the USAF of some 21 aeroplane cylinder heads, which caused the crash of 21 US fighters and pilots. Joe shamefully lumped all the blame on his number two, his friend, colleague and neighbour Steve Deever, who still languishes in prison, unjustly, for the crime. Meanwhile the latter’s daughter, Ann, is prevented from marrying the Kellers’ younger son, Chris, because the mother, Kate, fervently refuses to believe that Larry, her elder son and a wartime pilot, now lost, is dead: ‘She’s Larry’s girl’.
First praise to Richard Moore’s engaging set design. With astroturf lawn, an impressive wooden slatted house frontage, garden door entrance, twin levels, fencing and solid side gates, it looks the part exactly: it provides a compact, enclosed, at times suitably stifling outdoor area that serves the grim domestic tragedy being played out on stage extremely well.
Miller elected for ten roles, although one, the small boy Bert, was here essentially cut (apart from a voice calling over the fence): a pity, arguably, as the scenes with Bert give Keller a chance to lighten and brighten, to engage in play acting and irony that enhances and broadens his character. Four lesser roles, two pairs of neighbours, bring contrast: Mark Crossley as the delightfully loopy Frank Lubey, Claire Bradwell as the splendidly dozy but open-eyed Lydia, who has borne him (I think) four rampaging children and who underlines the aura of trust that permeates Act I. Of the other neighbours, Jim Bayliss (Dave Crossfield) is a doctor, perceptive, and guessing the truth, but supportive, who should perhaps be smoking a pipe. Angie Collins as his verging on bitchy wife, Sue, brings her character forcefully alive when she engages in a verbal punch up in Act 2 with the young Ann, a powerful scene powerfully done.
A meeting of two families at odds - Ann Deever (Julie-Ann
Randell), Larry's former sweetheart, and her new love, his brother Chris
A meeting of two families at odds - Ann Deever (Julie-Ann Randell), Larry's former sweetheart, and her new love, his brother Chris (Jimmy Proctor)
At the centre of everything, somewhat static as the family and neighbourly fairground goes on around him, is Joe Keller (Tom O’Connor). Keller is amiable, family minded, somewhat bluff, a typical American paterfamilias and troublingly smug self-made man. He has indeed bluffed his way out of the crisis that put his partner in jail; are there lingering doubts evident in the first half? Is he really insecure? ‘Joe McGuts’, his son admiringly calls him, and he certainly has a nerve. He looks unshakable.
Perhaps Keller needed to be more mobile, dominating the stage and not just part of it, pacing the property to make his mark: when he describes returning, acquitted, and walking down the street to cries of ‘murderer’, he really does need to strut and swagger, not merely to recall it. But O’Connor’s at times fractionally subdued or quiescent interpretation did have a major bonus: we were on his, and Joe’s, side, and, till the unexpected end, we really do believe in Joe: we like him. It makes the ending, and the gunshot, all the more searing.
The Director’s wife, Mary MacDonald, takes the role of Kate Keller, Joe’s wife. Kate’s most telling set piece comes early in the play. At the outset, rain is pouring down frontstage – a plus for the effects department – and a storm breaks quite dramatically: a good idea (the text does not insist on it, but alludes back) that captures the tense atmosphere straight away, as with a lightning flash and ominous crash the tree – ‘Larry’s tree’ – tumbles down. Kate – here, the first character we see - has seen it fall at night.
Her vivid dream has been about Larry: ‘I could almost reach out and touch him’. It’s a deeply emotive, and essential, speech, and Mary MacDonald coming frontstage gives it her best. Mother, and her belief in Larry’s survival, plays a key role throughout the play, right till the denouement and the crucial letter which Ann produces, indicating Larry’s belief in his father’s guilt, and probable suicide. Just possibly Kate is not only the generous-hearted American mum, but a little more deranged and depressive than this. But the whole cast were on edge on her appearance, and hung on her every word, longing – though they could not - to appease her.
In a way Miller shines the light on the next, the younger, generation: Larry from the outset, and at the close; Ann’s brother George (George Heynes) is in a sense the Angel of Death, who hears from his father’s lips the truth of Joe’s guilt that will dominate the last scenes. Heynes found the right kind of bottled up anger – in Act 2 you could see him seething underneath – and also the boyishness in his twenties which is about to yield to the cajolings and old warmth he in childhood felt for the Keller family.
Retribution finally impends for Joe Keller (Tom O'Connor)
Retribution finally impends for Joe Keller (Tom O'Connor)
In a way George, who has come in a fury to remove his sister, is restricted in what he can do: he is, like Joe but for different reasons, rather bolted to the spot. Perhaps he needed to elaborate his stance, vary his reaction and gestures; perhaps not. Certainly his task is to put Joe on the wrong foot, rattled, fighting, finally on the defensive. We at last witness the real Keller under pressure.
Arguably the extra special member of this notable team is Julie-Ann Randell, playing Ann Deever, daughter of the imprisoned Steve. Every time Ann waltzes onto the stage, the atmosphere lifts. Beautifully and aptly dressed (wardrobe: Mary MacDonald), she lightens everything with her magical touch: her affectionate scenes with Chris are delicate and absorbing, her breezy fondness for Joe enlivens his day, her moves are free and flowing, her touching care and fondness for Kate - even when being berated for her proposed marriage to Chris - and her irrepressible joy and good humour, all bring a splendid change and variety to the events unfolding – even though she is at the centre of them.
Which leaves another pleasing performance, from Jimmy Proctor as Chris. Chris is a tricky role to play: in some ways, his changes of mood and allegiance are more subtle than other characters’: Proctor gives us the loyalty, the urge to heal wounds, the fond banter with his dad, the dedication to his mother, and the surrogate love for Ann which we see grow and blossom as the play moves on.
Chris, the innocent, more than anyone is beleaguered by events; a searcher after truth in the belief it will be bring a safe result: that the worst has happened (Larry’s death) and that no other disaster is lurking. A brisk showing from Chris is needed to shift the play, and the plot, along, and all this he brings. In a sense you could say that he has captured Chris. And that’s no mean achievement.
Gus MacDonald proved his point. He gave us a classic production of what is indeed, ‘a classic of its time’: and of all time. To 18-02-17