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.
Half stars fall between the ratings

willy and sons

Jake Collyer as Happy, Phil Astle as Willy and Andrew Sargent as Biff.

Pictures: Emily White

Death of a Salesman

Highbury Theatre Centre


Willy Loman is a salesman through and through. Now 63, he sells dreams, he sells hopes, rosy futures, sunny pasts, successful sons, better tomorrows and most of all he sells himself. Funny thing is, nobody is buying . . . and we never do find out what he was paid to sell.

We first meet Willy when he arrives home, exhausted, after a less than successful selling trip, the dearth of sales becoming a feature of his treks around New England where once he was known and feted by every big buyer, or so he claims.

We discover he is no longer paid a wage but is working only on commission, a situation, you suspect, owing less to the meanness of his employers than the fact Willy no longer sells enough to justify a salary.

But no worry, tomorrow will always be better. Phil Astle gives us a Willy full of nervous energy, king of his castle, except it’s a castle built on sand. Optimism pours out of him at every turn, but perhaps it is just pouring away, and one day will finally run out.

His son Biff, a ranch hand in Texas, perhaps, has returned home on one of his infrequent visits. Biff and Willy have a strained relationship, a simmering anger with its roots in the past. It is a strong, convincing performance from Andrew Sargent.

Biff was a high school football star, a quarterback courted by three colleges, except he failed math. Summer school would have solved the problem but after a visit to Boston to plead with his travelling salesman father to persuade the school to pass him, Biff returns home, leaving all his dreams, and his life, behind.

What happened we will discover in time, but it reverberates between Willy and Biff for the rest of their lives.

Staying with Willy and long-suffering wife Linda is second son Happy, a happy by name and nature performance by Jake Collyer. Happy works in a store, an assistant something or other, a position close to the top job, or so he tells us, although reality might be several levels of assistant down on Happy’s description. After all he is his salesman father’s son.

willy and Linda

Willy with Paula Snow as devoted wife Linda

Linda provides a lovely performance from Paula Snow. She fusses endlessly over Willy, perhaps remembering good times when he really did sell, really was the man, but there is a sadness as she sees her husband and his world falling apart.

There is good support from Andrew Tomlinson as Willy’s successful and now dead brother Ben while Phil Nooney holds his own as Charley, the kindly neighbour who takes plenty of stick from Willy yet makes a quiet success of his uneventful life along with his son Bernard, played by Richard Constable.

Bernard was the nerdy kid hero worshipping Biff at school, and while Biff is now a drifter, Bernard is a lawyer about to appear before the Supreme Court, yet still Willy is selling the idea that somehow Biff and Happy are great successes, Biff about to clinch a big deal, Happy close to running the store.

 Charley loans money each week to Willy, with little hope of ever seeing it repaid, and even offers him jobs which Willy turns down out of stubborn pride. Neither he nor Bernard, or even Jenny, Charley’s secretary played by Val Tomlinson, really believe Willy’s desperate boasts.

The cracks have already appeared by the time father and sons meet for dinner and life really starts to fall apart after a row with Biff who is constantly interrupted as he tries to tell of a business meeting built on a lie, a meeting that was no more than a fanciful pipe dream.

Willy storms off and would be lothario Happy, who has a habit of seducing the fiancées of the stores’ executives, or at least that’s his claim, picks up Miss Forsythe in the restaurant, along with her friend Letta, played by Henna McKell and Valentine Besry, for a night of . . . well unadorned lust if one is honest, for him and Biff. Willy forgotten in a search for sex.

Then we have Howard, played by James Cutajar, son of the founder of the Warner firm Willy has worked for for more than 30 years. Loyalty is not a high selling point when you are not selling though. Willy wants to stop travelling and work in his home city of New York, Howard just wants someone who can sell, so goodbye Willy, come back if you sort yourself out. The cracks in Willy’s world have become chasms.

Howard and willy

James Cutajar as Howard who is more interested in his new wire recorder than Willy's problems

The play is littered with flashbacks, visits from Ben, Biff and Happy as kids, buying the Loman home in Brooklyn, which has just one payment left on the mortgage, and then there is the woman – secretary to a big Boston buyer, who Willy knows, in both a social and Biblical sense.

Gill Williams’ character doesn’t warrant a name, the other woman often loses out on that score, but her part is perhaps much more significant in this tale than the away day dalliance she is a part of.

It all comes to a head when Biff launches into a speech full of anger and frustration laying out some home truths about Linda, about Willy and Happy the assistant to an assistant to an assistant and ever downwards, real, powerful emotion from Sargent here.

Jobless, broke, and desperate Willy still sees this as a positive, a sign Biff loves him as he formulates a plan to help Biff get started in business, whether he wants to be in business or not.

The end is perhaps inevitable, the clue is in the title. And, despite the boasts, not one buyer from New England turned up to pay their respects.

Arthur Miller has the ability to write about ordinary people. Few of us know a gangster, a murderer or a victim, common fare in drama, but we know, or come across salesmen, shop assistants, people in low skilled jobs,

And the problems of the Loman family, unemployment, changing nature of jobs, even making jobs sound better or more important that they are, are not unfamiliar. It might be exaggerated, more than any family has to bear all at once, but it is something we can still relate to, elements we might have witnessed of even experienced, which makes it more personal, a drama we live through.

The cast do a fine job with what is a complex and wordy play, all the action is in the dialogue. Malcolm Robertshaw has designed a two tier set, bedrooms above, kitchen below, with a New York skyline behind, with a neat trick of a reversable tablecloth to change kitchen to restaurant in an instant.

Its all aided by at times dramatic lighting from Andrew Noakes and incidental sound from Luke Stockbridge,

Directed by Alison Cahill, Willy will be selling his tragic story to 25-03-23.

Roger Clarke


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