Old Red Lion Theatre, until 9 January 2016
Guest Review by Sarah Tinsley
It’s my first World Premiere. After years spent extrapolating meaning and nuance from the wonderful plays of Arthur Miller with English Literature students, I was privileged to witness the first ever performance of his first ever play. Written while he was still at college, and which gained him his first award, No Villain sees a family, stricken by the Wall Street crash which forces them to move from an expensive lifestyle to struggling through on bank loans and cramming the entire family (including Grandpa) into a small room in Brooklyn.
It’s impressive, to say the least. Right from the outset, we are drawn into his world through poetic language, stilted dialogue, dark humour, tangled family relationships and social realism, which would go on to earn him a reputation as one of the greatest writers for the stage. His best known play, Death of a Salesman, won a Tony award and a Pulitzer Prize.
As his most autobiographical work, I wonder how he would have reacted to seeing a mirror of himself – ‘Arny’ the college son returning home (he had the nickname ‘Arty’ in his family). Portrayed as a beloved yet awkward addition to the family, Adam Harley is intense and fervent in his portrayal of the young playwright. He creates friction on his return, eager to put his newfound Communist ideals into practice with the family, forcing a choice between his beliefs and his responsibilities as a son.
His parents are stranded in a world they no longer understand, Nesba Crenshaw as Esther, his mother, creates an edgy atmosphere in the household, wringing her hands and worrying throughout the entire play, her concerns centred around the happiness of those she loves. Abe, his father, is a shrunken version of his former self, adrift in recollections of his glory days and the failure of his sons to live up to his expectations. David Bromley puts on a fierce yet melancholy performance, while Helen Coles, as the younger sister Maxine, provides a welcome fluid presence amongst the stiff and worried characters around her, freed by the surety of her adoration by all. George Turvey gives an impressive performance as the older son Ben, dominating the stage, trying to gather up the pieces of his family and forge ahead, troubled by his obligations and sense of morality at the plight of the workers. There are no weak links here; each actor gives a convincing and engaging portrayal.
However, there are places where the writing feels a little naive. Not long into the play, Ben ‘explains’ communism and its principles to his father. The hand of the writer is far too heavily felt, as though Miller has leaned over the stage to tell us his thoughts. The ending also lacks the subtlety they he would develop in his later work. It feels too neatly tied up, the message of the play displayed too overtly. But then, he did write it when he was nineteen, so this is not to be wondered at.
The stage production gave us the claustrophobic feel of a family unused to poverty, with the sound and smoke effects subtly creating the grimy downtown factory. Sean Turner’s direction is tight and controlled, guiding us into the building tension as their problems escalate.
It has a resonance, in our current economic crisis, faced with the aftermath of cuts and the deficit. A reminder that societies never really learn the lessons of previous times, that the good times don’t always last, and the result of those failings all too often fall on those who can least afford it. Miller reminds us that there may be more at stake than personal gain, and that providing a safe and secure society for all might just mean abandoning those things which we assign value to, but which are ultimately worthless. A riveting production that stays with you long after you leave the theatre.