Another day, another Arthur Miller opening in London in a season that sees a plethora of the American playwright’s work popping up across the capital. The Price has already opened in the West End, and Death of a Salesman and All My Sons are still to come at the Young and Old Vic respectively. For now, though, it’s The American Clock at the latter.
Written in 1980, The American Clock is another of Miller’s lesser-known works. It’s set during the Great Depression and loosely follows a family forced to move from their Manhattan home to live with relatives in Brooklyn. It flopped when it premiered on Broadway and has had a chequered production history since – especially when contrasted with Miller’s other big hits.
This revival is helmed by rising American director Rachel Chavkin, who earned a Tony nomination with her production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 two years ago, and who most recently took the reins of Broadway-bound musical Hadestown at the National.
But will Chavkin successfully brush the dust off this lesser-spotted Miller play? What do the critics make of her take? Is The American Clock worth your time?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Miller’s most famous plays – The Crucible, Death Of A Salesman, All My Sons, A View From The Bridge – are all fairly traditionally structured tragedies examining the soul of American capitalism. The American Clock, however, is not like that, nor is it like the other Miller play that opened this week.
“Where The Price was fairly run-of-the-Miller in terms of structure and theme, this 1980 creation presents itself as something altogether different,” explains Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★). “Miller called it a ‘vaudeville’ and, in between snapshots that roughly follow a family as they lose everything in 1930s New York, there are big old song and dance numbers.”
It has its good points, as some critics point out. “While it’s not one of Miller’s greatest, it shows his enduring capacity to capture the state of a troubled nation,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), while Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★) recommends sticking at it to enjoy “the second half’s smaller, subtler, stranger scenes”, and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) reckons it’s “the most relevant piece of political theatre in town”.
But, as most critics are quick to call, it’s also got a lot of problems. It’s “an unrelenting parade of acts of desperation and debasement” according to Bano, “a bit of a slog” according to Lukowski, “sprawling and ponderous” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★) and “polemical” according to Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★★).
“Although the history lesson it provides has undeniable relevance, Miller’s delivery is too preachy,” Hitchings continues, while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) records how “the history lesson just goes on and on for three hours, with a plot occasionally emerging.”
“There was a point when I thought it might never end,” she concludes.
Rachel Chavkin is rapidly becoming a big name on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as the Tony-nominated Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and the juggernaut folk-musical Hadestown, she is founding artistic director of critically acclaimed American company the Team.
Her big idea with Miller’s problematic play is to have the central family played by three different casts throughout the evening – a white cast, a black cast, and an Asian cast. It’s a divisive device.
“The aim is to heighten the story’s timelessness and reflect the nation’s diversity: fine in theory but the effect, paradoxically, is to shift the focus away from the family,” comments Billington. “The real strength of the production lies in individual scenes that give vivid snapshots of 1930s America.”
“I guess it suggests the diversity of America and the fact this same story was happening everywhere, though the play is so fragmented already it feels like quite a minor staging decision,” chimes Lukowski, while Hitchings labels it “an innovation that can prove confusing”.
“It doesn’t really aid the drama, or match up thematically, and adds to the confusion of a play teeming with characters – many of whom only appear briefly, or with long stretches in between their scenes,” echoes Swain.
In general, though, most critics reckon it makes a good fist of a challenging task. Swain admires the “distinctive spin” and Crompton lauds Chavkin for doing her “absolute, dazzling best.”
“She sets the entire thing in the round, putting half the audience on the Old Vic’s stage, staring out into its glistening auditorium,” explains Crompton. “She has tripled the Baum family, so that it moves from being white Jewish, to South Asian, to African-American in order to emphasise the multi-cultural nature of American society. She peppers the play’s vignettes with a wonderful score by Justin Ellington and sound designer Darron L West and energetic use of the revolve and fantastic, sharp dance routines from Ann Yee.”
Chavkin’s production, with its rotating, multi-role cast, uses an ensemble of 20 performers, and most critics concur that they’re all pretty good.
Clarke Peters gets the lion’s share of praise as the loose story’s shepherd. “His calm and sincere delivery contains in it a striking sadness,” according to Bano, while Hitchings praises his “melancholy gravitas” and Maxwell calls him “endlessly watchable”.
Golda Rosheuvel is also widely lauded. She “comes close to stealing the show, first as a rabble-rousing communist giving a storming speech, and then as Rose 3 suffering a nervous breakdown while waiting for the bailiffs to come calling,” writes Bano.
Ewan Wardrop is also mentioned – he “briefly dazzles as tap-dancing General Electric boss Ted Quinn,” says Hitchings – as is Clare Burt, who Crompton says has “a quiet dignity and the sweetest of smiles as the first version of Rose”.
The entire ensemble impresses in fact. Bano writes of “a fine cast”, Hitchings of “vivid performances”, Swain of “a tireless ensemble” and Crompton admires how “the performers pull great moments of emotion from the script.”
29 years on from its premiere, The American Clock remains as awkward as ever it seems. Chavkin’s production is admirably ambitious – even if it’s central role-swapping idea doesn’t quite come off – and the large ensemble cast all produce fine performances.
It still struggles to solve the problems of Miller’s play, though, which, most critics reckon, is too plotless and too preachy to match up to his more well-known works. A slew of two and three-star reviews suggest that there’s better to come in London’s mini-season of Miller.