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Arthur Miller’s No Villain review at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London – ‘quite a coup’

A scene from No Villain at the Old Red Lion Theatre A scene from No Villain at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: Cameron Harle
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It’s quite a coup, this: Arthur Miller’s debut play, never previously produced, is receiving its world premiere nearly 80 years later after it was written in 1936 – not in America, but on the other side of the Atlantic in an Islington pub theatre.

Intended by a young Miller to win the University of Michigan’s Avery Hopwood award (which it did), No Villain traces the declining fortunes and – foreshadowing his later work – father-son tensions of a New York Jewish family as an industry-wide strike proves disastrous for their garment-making business.

A scene from No Villain at the Old Red Lion
No Villain at the Old Red Lion. Photo: Cameron Harle

Frankly, just the story of this production’s origins – including how director Sean Turner discovered the play after 18 months of research – is compelling. But does the work itself stand up to scrutiny? What certainly isn’t in doubt is the quality of Turner’s staging. Max Dorey’s gorgeous set transforms the Old Red Lion space into a beautifully detailed drawing room and office.

This adaptable set, complemented by Richard Melkonian’s score, brims with atmosphere – a finely textured backdrop for Miller’s intimate portrait of a clash between old and new ideas as glimpsed in the painful gulf that grows between the self-made factory owner Abe and his sons, Ben – who works with him – and Arnold, the prodigal Communist who returns from university.

The performances are finely wrought, with David Bromley offering us, in Abe, a glimpse of Willy Loman in his agonised refusal to face the post-Depression ruination of everything he believes in. Meanwhile, Nesba Crenshaw as his wife, Esther, teeters on hysteria as George Turvey, as Ben, and Adam Harley, as Arnold, breathe life into their characters’ similarities and differences.

Turner’s sensitive direction brings out the best in a play Miller once called his most autobiographical – heightening the documentary vividness of its sympathetic portrayal of a family caught in the teeth of change. Throughout, there are signs of the greatness to come, of Miller’s grasp of the epic human tragedy written in the worn-out face of everyday America.

But you’re left wanting more from the conflict here. The roar is muted. After much set-up, Arnold barely exchanges any words with Abe – he’s Miller’s ideological chess piece, fixed on a board, lacking the kind of moves that would follow. The issue isn’t that history has overtaken the play’s optimistic account of Communism – ‘isms’ make for good metaphors; it’s that it’s a bit stiff. What’s lacking in the writing is a really burning sense of the stakes.

Nevertheless, No Villain is a fascinating insight into Miller’s growth as a playwright and has a lot to recommend it besides – not least the quality treatment it gets from this production. The Old Red Lion, with its interesting and wide-ranging programming recently, has now contributed to theatrical history. Such an achievement should be applauded.

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This global premiere of Arthur Miller’s debut play hints at the greatness to come and has much to offer in its own right