Playwrights, like fashions, go in and out of style, and in 2019 Arthur Miller is back in a big way in London. Ahead of The American Clock and All My Sons at the Old Vic, plus Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic and The Crucible at the Yard Theatre, comes The Price at Wyndham’s in the West End.
Jonathan Church’s production – a 50th-anniversary revival that transfers, cast intact, from Theatre Royal Bath – stars David Suchet as an antiques dealer, brought in to to assess the furnishings of a New York home, who watches over the two warring brothers – a cop and a surgeon – who have just inherited it.
Miller’s 1968 play isn’t as famous or as regularly produced as his phenomenally successful earlier work. It was last in the West End in 2003, in a Sean Holmes production starring Warren Mitchell. Church’s revival runs at Wyndham’s until late April.
But is this rare revival all killer Miller and no filler? Is this inaugural opening of this year’s Arthur Miller offerings a hit? Do the critics think The Price is worth the price?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Miller apparently wrote The Price, which is set during the aftermath of the Great Depression, partly in response to a growing trend in avant-garde theatre in 1960s America, and partly in response to the Vietnam War. But how well does his play work today?
“On its premiere in 1968, The Price was a bit of critical flop,” explains Rosemary Waugh (Time Out, ★★★★). “This revival suggests it’s a genuinely good play, albeit not as good as Miller’s better-known output. It would take a brave soul to claim it’s in the same category as The Crucible.”
“It has neither the tautness nor the scope of his better-known work,” agrees Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★). “That’s not to do it down – it’s still an incredibly good play. But greatness suffers when placed next to even greater greatness.”
“It’s a piece with tendencies towards the talky and static; it’s certainly not in the front rank of Miller’s work,” opines Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★).
“The playwright gives us an opening half-hour that is slightly stately and a family ding-dong that ends up almost psychedelically dense with insights and buried truths,” chimes Dominic Maxwell (The Times, ★★★★), before noting that these are “minor quibbles in a play that comes across here as one of Miller’s finest.”
A good play, then, most critics concur, but not one of his best. What is it about, though?
“Miller packs a huge amount of political and psychological matter and natter into this motherlode of reunion and confrontation,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★). “Miller’s old-fashioned, schematic construction has helped the play endure, yielding a chest-full of pertinent and painful reflections on the forces that shape us, whether they be familial, financial, or related to our need to ‘fabulate’, embellish our backstories.”
“The play is Ibsen-like in its slow revelation of family secrets and its subtle examination of financial, moral and social debt,” adds Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★). “It feels mightily resonant now.”
It’s “strong, absorbing stuff” says Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★), while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) observes how “The Price, like so much of the playwright’s work, centres on a family torn apart by compromise and illusion.”
“Miller’s righteous anger about a system that crushes people by its moral failures seems less like idealistic preaching and more like a prescient reading of the nightly news,” she continues.
David Suchet is best known for playing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot on ITV, but during his long career he has scored successes on the small screen, big screen and the stage on both sides of the Atlantic. Can he rank his appearance here among them?
He definitely can. His performance as octogenarian furniture dealer Gregory Solomon is an “unalloyed pleasure” and a “tour de force to treasure” according to Cavendish, and a “truly great star turn” according to Maxwell.
He’s “suspicious, timid, playful, wise, treacherous, old and young, cycling through all these states and many more in every moment,” writes Bano. “At one point he has the audience in stitches (he’s an incredible comic actor), then, with one tiny line, he silences them. That takes skill.”
“Suchet piles on the irascible charisma, the tics, the storytelling, the avuncular intimacy,” adds Maxwell. “He’s pure comedy, a knowing self-caricature.”
He “has the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he staggers on stage – shabby, frail and virtually unrecognisable from his sharp-suited Poirot”, writes Claire Webb (Radio Times, ★★★★), while Matt Drake (Express, ★★★) praises his “joyful mixture of slapstick comedy and precision timing” and John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★) calls his performance “well, priceless”.
There’s plenty of praise for his co-stars, too – Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle as New York cop Victor, Adrian Lukis as successful surgeon Walter, and Sara Stewart as Victor’s alcoholic wife.
Coyle is particularly singled out. He’s “incredibly expressive” for Bano, “quietly powerful” for Webb and “a study of pent-up years of decency and resentment” for Mountford.
“He gives a marvellous reminder of just what a good stage actor he is after years of being underused in Downton Abbey,” concludes Crompton, even if, she adds, Coyle could “hardly disguise his own fits of the giggles” at Suchet’s performance.
Miller’s play stands the test of time, then, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to his better-known classics, and it draws out two fine performances from Suchet and Coyle. What about Jonathan Church’s direction, though? And Simon Higlett’s design?
Higlett, first of all, is heaped with praise for what Cavendish calls “an astounding set of high-suspended teetering junk”, what Bano describes as “half an antiques shop hanging from the ceiling”, what Mountford calls “a glorious cornucopia of clutter”, and what Waugh calls a “massive mound of chairs, bureaus, dressers, chairs, tables and more chairs climbing up the walls, exploding on to the ceiling like the tornado from The Wizard of Oz just hit.”
Church’s production meanwhile is “quietly intense” and “unforced” according to Maxwell, “rich and powerful” according to Mountford, and “beautifully pitched” according to Hemming. It is, Bano reckons, however, “more traditional” than some of the Miller revivals to come.
A rack of four-star reviews, with a stand-out five-star rating from the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish point to a transfer that more than deserves its spot in the West End.
Arthur Miller’s play, while it might not be in the upper echelon of his work alongside Death of a Salesmen, All My Sons, The Crucible and others, is still politically and personally powerful; Church’s production is smoothly sensitive on Higlett’s cascade of furniture set; and Suchet provides a performance to cherish at the centre of it all.
The Price is right for London’s season of Miller to start.