Arthur Miller here, Arthur Miller there, Arthur Miller everywhere. After high-profile revivals of The Price, The American Clock and The Crucible comes All My Sons – another of the American playwright’s classic hits, in a star-studded Old Vic production, directed by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin, that runs until early June.
Miller’s 1947 play – which follows the trials and tribulations of the Keller family in the aftermath of the Second World War – is always on stage somewhere. In recent years, it’s been seen in Dundee, Nottingham, Manchester, and on tour across the UK. The last major London revival, starring David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker, was only nine years ago. Another high-profile production just opened on Broadway, starring Annette Benning and Tracy Letts.
This revival is not short of marquee names either. Herrin’s staging sees American A-listers Bill Pullman and Sally Field (making her London debut) star alongside British big-hitters Colin Morgan and Jenna Coleman (making her first professional stage appearance, remarkably).
But does Miller’s play still scan 72 years after it premiered? Does Herrin’s starry cast live up to their billing? Can the critics cope with another healthy helping of Arthur Miller?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
All My Sons is, like most Miller plays, unashamedly political. Set in suburban Ohio on one hot August day, it tracks how the upstanding Keller family fracture and fall apart over buried secrets and ideological differences. It was hugely acclaimed back in 1947, but does it still have something to say today?
Most critics think it still packs a punch, Serena Davies (Telegraph, ★★★★★) labelling it a “masterpiece”, Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★) writing that it is “a stunningly well-crafted play” and Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★) calling it “a finely drawn, perfectly plotted, remarkably resonant mixture of the personal and the political”.
“It remains a piercing attack on greedy individualism, as well as a moving portrait of a family haunted by a single ugly episode in their past,” says Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★) thinks it’s “just devastating”.
“It has an intellectual and emotional power that speaks as loudly today as in the immediate post-war period in which it is set,” she continues, and Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★) agrees, writing that “Miller’s questions about moral compromise, responsibility and denial still resonate today”.
Most, though, can see the contemporary relevance of this classic. “It could be a mere coincidence, but at a time where fact is meaningless and people tell themselves what they want to believe, it demonstrates the consequences of pulling the wool over your eyes,” says Will Longman (LondonTheatre, ★★★★).
As artistic director of Headlong, Jeremy Herrin has helmed some of the biggest hits of recent years, including Labour Of Love, Junkyard and People, Places and Things. Does he manage to make another out of Miller’s all-American classic?
His take on the text is definitely divisive. It’s “disappointingly uneven” and “its incoherent quality suggests that Herrin has lost his touch” according to Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★★★), and it’s “not so much crash and burn as prang and smoulder” according to Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★).
It’s “underpowered” for Hitchings and, according to Trueman, “feels fresh from a factory line” and “resembles every All My Sons ever staged, though: a show in search of something substantially new to say and never quite bold enough to throw off its shape”.
Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★) has a problem with how low-key this revival is. “What’s really interesting about Jeremy Herrin’s production is how determinedly restrained it is,” she writes. “Three hours of quiet, largely impeccably observed naturalism.”
Others find this naturalism entrancing, with Crompton calling Herrin’s revival “thoughtful and detailed”, Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★) labelling it “surprisingly restrained”, and Dominic Maxwell opining that “it’s a quiet evening, but its cumulative power takes your breath away”.
“Herrin’s production has not been modernised in any way,” concludes Bano. “It contains no concepts or gimmicks. In this year of great Miller revivals, it will undoubtedly prove to be one of the safest, most traditional takes. But its power lies in the way it makes a great play as great as it can be: in the finesse and in the details – like the squeak of the screen door, rasping in the silence like a scream that’s been trying to escape this picture-perfect American home for years.”
In any other show, the fact that Merlin’s Colin Morgan and Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman are starring side by side would be the biggest talking point, but not here. Their headlines are somewhat stolen by Bill Pullman – iconic star of Independence Day – and two-time Oscar winner Sally Field.
Pullman – playing the patriarchal Joe Keller – is seriously divisive. For Trueman, he supplies a “shambling, semi-mumbling turn”, for Allfree he is “folksy but remote”, and for Sierz he is “a big hole at the centre of this show”.
Others, though, think he’s great. He’s “excellent at conveying the character’s strenuous self-justification”, says Billington, while Hitchings calls his performance “charismatic”. Crompton calls him “astonishing in his control”, and Maxwell admires how he “makes us see the contradictions fighting it out beneath a calm exterior”.
Field is more consistently praised. Trueman calls her performance “uncharacteristically overblown”, but almost everyone else disagrees – it’s “carefully wrought” for Sierz, “thoroughly absorbing” for Marmion and “superb” for Billington.
“Field’s Kate looks like a woman who suddenly, almost accidentally, grew old,” writes Bano. “Little shoots of youth still poke through. Her voice is feeble and wistful, half stuck in the past, but she snaps forcefully back to the present whenever she wants.”
“Field arguably gives the performance of the night here: frail, tenacious, conniving, she combines emotional fragility with an iron determination,” agrees Allfree, while Crompton lauds how she “conveys both frailty and inner steel” and Hitchings admires a “subtle performance, in which every loving gesture seems unbearably fragile”.
The British stars – Coleman and Morgan – are somewhat overlooked in the reviews, but both impress nonetheless. “Coleman is lovely, finding richness in a role that is essentially reactive,” says Crompton, while Billington praises how Morgan “captures perfectly Chris’s mixture of survivor guilt, intuitive awareness of Joe’s mendacity and love for his brother’s fiancee”.
Most critics reckon that Miller’s play can still floor an audience seven decades after it debuted on Broadway and most – but not all of them – think that Herrin’s understated production has enough star power to do just that. Pullman pulls in a mixture of praise and scorn, but everyone agrees that Field is fantastic.
It’s not a clear-cut hit, but there’s enough stars on display here – five-star ratings from the Telegraph and WhatsOnStage, in particular – to call London’s latest Miller revival a success. Next up: Death Of A Salesman, just down the road at the Young Vic.