All My Sons

Arthur Miller

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

(2009)

Review by David Chadderton

New artistic director David Thacker has decided to make his directorial debut at the Octagon with Arthur Miller's first Broadway success from 1947 in which war, business and self-interest clash, All My Sons.

Joe Keller has an engineering business that once supplied aircraft parts during the war, but there was a case in which he was arrested, but eventually cleared, of supplying faulty parts that caused the deaths of US airman and his partner and next-door neighbour was imprisoned. His wife Kate is the most welcoming hostess but she is the only one in the family who believes that their son Larry, missing in action for over three years, is still alive. Loyal, loving son Chris, whom Joe is priming to take over the business, has invited Larry's former fiancée Ann, the daughter of Joe's former partner, from New York to propose to her, which upsets Kate who believes, wrongly, that Ann is still waiting for Larry like her. When Ann's lawyer brother George comes over, suspicions come to the surface and hidden secrets begin to be revealed.

The setting in a middle class garden in a small community where friends and neighbours wander in and out is quite Chekhovian (even down to the melodramatic dénouement) but the content of the play is pure Ibsen, perhaps with a bit of O'Neill thrown in. Miller was famously influenced by the Norwegian dramatist, even writing his own translation of his An Enemy of the People. Thacker is presenting All My Sons with the following production of Ibsen's Ghosts as a sort of diptych of plays as the two share the same principal cast and the same structure in that all of the important events have already happened before the play begins and are unchangeable and what we see is the revelation and the aftermath of a father's past actions.

Thacker's production creates that Chekhovian atmosphere really well in the first two acts before the explosions in the third; this isn't an action-packed play and so, if not handled correctly, it can seem very 'wordy' and heavy, but the seemingly-inconsequential chatter is never dull. The intensity of the last act is perfectly controlled to deliver the shocking information and give a big emotional punch that the audience cannot avoid feeling. It isn't hard to guess the nature of the revelations, but what is important is seeing the effects of them on the characters.

George Irving's hugely-impressive performance as Joe takes a massive journey from the charismatic, jokey, loving family man preparing for retirement but ready to step in and solve family disputes calmly and rationally when they arise, to a prowling silverback gorilla in the last act, ready to attack in order to defend. Margot Leicester's performance as Kate is equally great, portraying her as a perfectly rational woman but with some unshakeable and not entirely rational beliefs.

Oscar Pearce as Chris goes from the happy, rather naive but wholly positive son of a local hero to a completely broken, devastated young man in a totally believable and heartbreakingly emotional performance. Vanessa Kirby gives a remarkably assured and mature performance as Ann in her professional stage debut, and Mark Letheren judges the character of George, who appears to believe whatever the last person with a strong opinion told him with great emotional intensity, just right.

The Keller's neighbours Frank and Lydia Lubey are played by Huw Higginson and Tammy Joelle and Jim and Sue Bayliss by Patrick Poletti and Francesca Ryan. The production is performed in-the-round on what looks like a glass tabletop that fills the stage area, designed by Patrick Connellan.

The play's politics are those of 1940s America and can seem a touch naive in retrospect from sixty years on, but the themes of war heroism, business ethics, the importance of money and what would someone do in a split second if faced with either ruining their family or patching up a mistake are, and always will be, immediately relevant. Although some productions of Miller seem to show him to be dated and long-winded, Thacker has shown that with the right hand on the helm he can still be as powerful, emotionally-charged and relevant as he ever was.