"I'm his father and he's my son, and if there's anything bigger than that I'll put a bullet in my head!"
Featuring two heavyweights of British acting talent, David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker, the new production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue has already attracted comments which have somehow made it onto big banners up at the theatre along the lines of “as close to a summer blockbuster as the West End can get”. Given that the first preview was just last night, this does seem a little previous, but having attended said first preview, I can honestly say never a truer word was said: this tale of guilt, denial and responsibility is just sensational!
Set in late 1940s smalltown America, All My Sons looks at what happens when capitalist greed runs amok hand in hand with a lack of moral responsibility. Joe Keller is a businessman whose factory was responsible for sending faulty aircraft parts to the American forces, resulting in the deaths of several servicemen in the Second World War. He escaped prison, but his business partner did not, and with his wife Kate and son Chris, has continued to be a successful man, the American Dream personified. However, when the business partner’s daughter Ann arrives for a visit, it becomes apparent that this dream is perilously close to being shattered. It turns out Anne was engaged to the Kellers’ other son Larry who disappeared in combat a few years ago but now has a budding romance with Chris. Kate is dead set against this as she is adamant that Larry is still alive, a delusion tolerated by the other men in the house, but it is the pursuit of the truth behind the force of her denial that finally unlocks the Pandora’s box of terrible secrets.
As the everyman Joe, David Suchet is excellent. Dominating the stage with his swaggering presence and a delightful bonhomie, he is utterly convincing in the assertion of his innocence so deeply is his guilt buried, so that when the cracks begin to show, it is genuinely disconcerting. Dare I say it though, the evening is owned by Zoë Wanamaker’s Kate. The opening scene in the thunderstorm features only her and this shifts the focus of the play slightly, drawing us into her self-deception and emphasising what a fantastic character this is. She revels in this complex, truly multi-layered woman: manipulative, heartbreaking, neurotic, complicated, she has such a wonderful chemistry with whomever she is playing the scene with, that it is just an absolute treasure to watch her work, and her performance towards the end of the play finds new harrowing levels in Miller’s already tragic depths: simply amazing to watch.
Against two such towering performances, the supporting cast could easily find themselves overawed but it was pleasing to see the two younger actors holding their own: Jemima Rooper’s Ann is sweet and honest, not quite able to hide the devastation wrought on her by her father’s imprisonment, but equally tough and possessed of a will of iron, her face off with Wanamaker over the letter is wonderful. And Stephen Campbell Moore as the idealistic Chris is fantastic at showing just how earth-shattering the revelations about his father are to him, such is the level of self-deception within himself(it really is family trait) and he does a very good angry! But there’s also very good work from the smaller players too: Steven Elder as the doctor neighbour, Claire Hackett as his brash wife and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the country bumpkin neighbour on the other side all provided strong support, constantly reminding us that very little passes unnoticed in small-town America. My only minor quibble was with Daniel Lapaine’s George but this is as much to do with the writing I think: he has only a comparatively small amount of time onstage, but has to make the journey from furious anger to homely acquiescence incredibly quickly and it wasn’t quite convincing. But early days yet for sure, and he has plenty of time to develop the interpretation.
Director Howard Davies has reassembled the creative team from his 2000 National Theatre production of this play, I’ll leave it to more seasoned critics than I to comment on the similarities or otherwise between the two on the design side, but I can say that the set is very well dressed. It is the back garden, porch and back wall of a large wooden house and looks very effective with some nice weighty garden furniture. All around them is greenery, with floating branches of trees framing the stage all around. The opening thunderstorm was very impressive and the subtle changes in lighting as we move throughout the day and night were well executed.
All in all, this was an absolute treat. The combination of looking at the cost of keeping deep dark secrets, but also the unpredictable consequences of then telling the truth means this packs a powerful weight and paired up with acting of this calibre makes this an absolute must-see. Both classy and classic, achingly timeless yet powerfully relevant and above all so very moving; I suspect this really could be the summer blockbuster hit that was predicted.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (though as a preview, this is most definitely subject to change)
Programme cost: £3.50
Note: you are warned that there is the smoking of tobacco onstage and sudden loud noises used