Arthur Miller’s 1947 masterpiece All My Sons begins as a family drama, turns into a detective story, and ends as a Greek tragedy.
We’re in the back yard of a typical middle-American home a couple of years after the Second World War. For the prosperous householder and paterfamilias, Joe Keller, the conflict was merely an opportunity to grow his small manufacturing business into a little gold-mine supplying engine parts for the army’s aeroplanes. For his sons Chris and Larry, who piloted those planes, the war was about making the kind of self-sacrifice that would build a better world. Now Chris is suffering an existentialist angst, realising that for most of his countrymen the war had no meaning and nothing has changed; while Larry is missing presumed dead, his plane having disappeared off the Chinese coast three years before.
The uneasy status quo is shaken with the arrival of their former neighbour, Ann, Larry’s one-time girlfriend and now Chris’s intended bride; but his mother Kate opposes what would amount to the final acknowledgement of her other son’s death. Over three acts and less than 24 hours the play peels back the half-buried war-time scandal surrounding the family firm and its link with Ann’s father and Larry’s accident.
David Thacker, the Octagon’s incoming artistic director, has chosen to open the new regime in Bolton with his specialist subject, Arthur Miller. Thacker’s personal relationship with the playwright is well-documented, and his record for producing Miller’s plays in this country is second to none - indeed my own first exposure to professional theatre was his production of A View from the Bridge at The Young Vic, a space very similar to the Octagon.
Although I’ve seen the Octagon in-the-round before, the playing area has never felt so close and immediate. The tiny stage is denuded bar the most of basic props (in the way of a handful of tables and chairs), but in Patrick Connellan’s stunning design the floor is transparent colourless glass which reveals a forest of wooden joists buried in sand, representing the shaky foundations of the Keller home.
George Irving returns to the Octagon after his blinding performance in Shining City two years ago. He remains faithful to Miller’s description of Joe Keller as “stolid”, but although superficially impassive and unemotional, below the surface there fizzes a James Cagney-esque nervous energy which eventually explodes to shattering effect.
Margot Leicester, who was so brilliant as the grieving mother in A Conversation at the Royal Exchange, gives a wonderful performance here as a mother in denial about her grief, clucking and fussing around the neighbours in an apparently unselfconscious manner, but constantly on her guard.
Oscar Pearce (Chris) and Vanessa Kirby (Ann) are a fine pairing as the sad but wise young lovers, and Mark Letheren has a great turn as Ann’s flaky brother George, in the typical Elisha Cook Jr role of a little man in a too-big suit.
The four lead members of the cast are returning next month in David Thacker’s Lancashire-set production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, again with Patrick Connellan designing, so it will be fascinating to watch this talented team take on another classic domestic tragedy.
All My Sons is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 24 October 2009
Tickets: from £9.00
Evenings: Mon-Sat at 7.30pm
Matinees: Friday 2, Saturday 3, Monday 5, Wednesday 7 October and Sat 17 Oct @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
Other Octagon events exploring All My Sons:
5 October, 5.30-7pm - Les Smith talks to David Thacker about his relationship and work with Arthur Miller (tickets free).
14 October, 10am-1pm - David Thacker leads cast members in an investigation of the play (£5).
17 October, 10am-1pm - Christopher Bigsby, academic and biographer of Arthur Miller, discusses the playwright (£5).
24 October, 2-6pm - Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children will be performed alongside an extract from All My Sons followed by a discussion (tickets free - donations to Medical Aid Gaza).