The Old Vic, London – until 8 June 2019
I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion or not, but does anyone else think that All My Sons is just a slightly less good version of Death of A Salesman? Maybe I’d think it was the other way around if I’d seen Sons first, but I didn’t and so I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, both are great pieces of writing and emotionally devastating. But I also feel like they are essentially also the same play, and that Salesman is the more effective version of it.
Both, of course, are also available for your viewing pleasure within yards of each other on the South Bank in London at the moment. All My Sons is at The Old Vic (Salesman at the Young Vic), directed by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin and with a properly blockbuster cast (of whom more below). It tells the story of the Keller family and their complicated devastation at the loss of one son in the Second World War.
This being a Miller play, that loss is of course emblematic of the death/unreality of the American Dream and the consequences of money trumps all capitalism. There’s a tortured heroine, an angry son and a tragic older man. Someone commits suicide at the end, obviously. It’s beautifully, angrily written – of course it is, Arthur Miller has his reputation as one of the absolute greats for a reason – but it does feel a little bit like Miller by numbers occasionally.
As noted above, the fact that I already know Death of a Salesman far better than All My Sons undoubtedly impacts on my opinion on the latter. And Sons is still an emotionally devastating watch, mind. Even when you have a reasonable idea of what’s coming as soon as the word ‘gun’ is mentioned in the first ten minutes or so of act one. I still cried when that gun was eventually used, and a few other times besides (curse you Sally Field).
A lot of the emotional impact comes from a genuinely great production. A caveat to that first though: it’s impossible to find fault with this production and yet I do feel that it suffers a little by comparison with some of the other Miller around this year, the Young Vic’s groundbreaking Salesman and the sister piece at the Old Vic, The American Clock, both of which are more innovative and memorable (Clock also having the advantage of not being essentially exactly the same play too).
That said, there is so much to admire in this unapologetically classic and gorgeously realised production. Director Jeremy Herrin is reliably excellent and gives us something beautifully serious, solid and a vision of theatrical polish. Max Jones’ huge set is stunning and a feat of stagecraft in its own right. It’s great to see the full expanse of The Old Vic’s massive stage being used so well and the sense of decay but also expectation he manages to create is spot on for the play (the crunching visual metaphor of the wind ruined tree is also nicely understated). Richard Howell’s lighting is pleasingly bleak and evocatively dazzling and/or dingy as required. Duncan McLean’s video design is very effective and all the more impactful for being sparsely used.
The main draw of this production though, and its absolute trump card, is its cast which is the stuff of theatrical dreams. The central foursome? Bill Pullman, Sally Field, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan. Sule Rimi and Oliver Johnstone, two of my favourite British stage actors around at the moment, pop up in supporting roles. It’s remarkable to have them all on the same stage.
Performance of the night for me goes to Colin Morgan whose status as one of our finest stage actors has somewhat crept up on me but jeez I’m so happy about it. He is straight up inspired as angry and complicated son Chris, the source of so much of the play’s fire. He is just endlessly watchable, completely at ease with all of his material (which ranges from happy to ragey to crushed and everything in between) and steals every scene he’s in. Sally Field runs him close in a textbook example of how to do a Miller tragic heroine. She is undoubtedly best in the heaviest moments, her heaving sobs a thing of tender, heartbreaking beauty. Bill Pullman is a great Miller tragic antihero too, particularly in the more explicitly ‘death of the American dream’ moments, even if his vocal projection is occasionally an issue if you’re sitting in the cheap seats (though this weirdly works in his favour as the action gets more tragic and his character starts to disintegrate). Jenna Coleman, somehow only now making her stage debut, not that you’d know it, is lively and feisty and as beautifully watchable and at home on stage as she always is on screen. Rimi and Johnstone are somewhat underused for my money (because I love them both muchly) but both deal with the key scenes that their characters have perfectly. Rimi drips with easy charisma and brings some much needed levity to the table and Johnstone almost the complete opposite, bringing tension and conflict with a believably tragic earnestness.
All My Sons may not be my favourite Arthur Miller play but The Old Vic’s production of it is undeniably brilliant, especially the heavyweight and stunningly good cast. I mean, if you have the opportunity to see Bill Pullman AND Sally Field AND Jenna Coleman AND Colin Morgan on the same stage, why would you ever not take it?
All My Sons is at The Old Vic until 8th June.
I sat in A3 in the Lilian Baylis circle for this one, for £20. This is my ‘usual’ seat in The Old Vic and offers a great – marginally restricted by the safety rail – view for the price.