One of the great whodunnits: Old Vic’s All My Sons reviewed

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

It starts on a beautiful summer’s morning in the suburbs of America. A prosperous middle-aged dad is chatting with his neighbours in the garden of his comfortable home, but by nightfall his family has been destroyed. This is one of the most momentous convulsions in all drama. Arthur Miller’s masterful plotting, which he never again surpassed, is a match for the best. By the best I mean Oedipus.

Jeremy Herrin’s production emphasises the lush fertility of America in the late 1940s. Trees in full leaf overlook the timber house that is perhaps a little too small for its millionaire owner. Joe Keller is a pioneering industrialist who served a brief jail term for supplying faulty components to the air force during the war. More than 20 pilots died. A retrial found Joe innocent and the blame was shifted to his partner, Deever, who was imprisoned and ostracised by his family. Deever’s son, now a lawyer, suspects malpractice at the second trial and he arrives at the house to stop his sister from marrying Joe’s son and accepting money from the tainted Keller firm. Another mystery surrounds Joe’s other child, Larry, who was serving as a pilot until his plane went missing.

Bill Pullman stresses Joe’s easy-going chumminess but misses his ambition and shark-like cunning. Overdoing the meekness, he seems more of a chief scout than a giant of industry. Not a complete performance. Sally Field’s turn as the batty matriarch on the verge of a breakdown is more convincing but she has a lot more to play with. She’s casually bitchy to her son’s girlfriend, she trembles with horror as she describes her prophetic dreams, and she coos and purrs over George, the former neighbour, who reminds her of her missing son. Oliver Johnstone (George) is outstanding as the troubled lawyer whose arrival sets the story on fire. He twitches and sweats like an addict, and he fondles the rim of his battered trilby as if it’s about to be repossessed. Chris (Colin Morgan) is a model of charming yuppie goodness, and Jenna Coleman shines as the pretty girlfriend with a steely heart.

But the star of this play, as in Oedipus, is neither the characters nor the rhetoric they unleash as disaster engulfs them. The star is the storyline. It’s not just a tragedy, it’s one of the great whodunnits. Which of the suspects really approved the faulty components? And what happened to the missing son? The revelations in the final act make it almost impossible to watch this play without feeling one’s hands bunching and clenching with fear and anguish. Perhaps this isn’t the greatest version ever staged but it succeeds in stirring mountains of emotion.

How admirably brave and eccentric of Chekhov to write a play, Three Sisters, in which nothing happens. A dashing soldier arrives in a small town. Several depressed ladies swoon over him. He leaves. The depressed ladies carry on being depressed. Rebecca Frecknall lays on a sparse modern-dress production whose bleak aesthetic finds a melancholy echo in the script. There are great performances from Patsy Ferran as Olga, a bored sex bomb, and from Freddie Meredith as a deranged gambling addict. Frecknell’s last show at the Almeida, Summer and Smoke, reached the West End. This is better, clearer, easier to enjoy. If it transfers, the Almeida would do well to redact the barmy essay written in the programme notes by the adapter. ‘They think,’ muses Cordelia Lynn, ‘just because you’re a writer you know how to write things but actually you know fuck all.’ There are better ways to advertise yourself.

Hell Yes I’m Tough Enough is an irresistible title for a political satire. The action is set during the 2015 election and the writer has fun misnaming the characters: Nick Clog, Ned Contraband, George Oblong. Ned and his opponent Dave are portrayed as a pair of dissembling halfwits who cherish the luxuries of office and regard politics as a game to be won at the expense of gullible voters. Both are so inept that they need to be coached by spin doctors. Two each, making four in all. That’s too many. Repetitiveness becomes a problem. Dave’s chief of communications, Glyniss, is an overbearing loudmouth while Ned is being handled by another female bossy-boots and a hippy dreamer who gets a few laughs but whose character belongs to Woodstock, not Westminster.

The writer Ben Alderton, who also stars as Dave, assumes that politics is run by thick, vain, boorish, charmless, foul-mouthed parasites. This is only partly true. A writer who wants to expose bias and mendacity mustn’t commit those sins himself. This is an energetic, crisply played satire but it’s too detached from reality to strike home. Alderton’s next play might give his characters a better chance by making them more intelligent and likable.

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