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All My Sons

Arthur Miller
Talawa Theatre Company
Salisbury Playhouse

Dona Croll, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Ray Shell Credit: Pamela Raith

It was two years after the ending of World War 2 that All My Sons was first produced. His first play, The Man Who Had All the Luck—clearly not Miller—was withdrawn after four performances and he was understandably hesitant to try again.

So, without All My Sons, how easily we might have been deprived of masterpieces like Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge and The Crucible. Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

But, right from the start, the play was a success, collecting numerous awards and establishing Miller’s reputation as a playwright whose ability to manipulate the emotions of the audience and engage their sympathy was paramount.

The story revolves round a family in conflict. The set, reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting and conveying some hint of the desolation and loneliness associated with that genre, shows a white clapboard house, surrounded by trees. One of them has, symbolically, been destroyed by a storm the night before the play begins, suggestive of tragic events to follow.

Joe, the father (Ray Shell), is the owner of a factory producing aircraft engine cylinder heads for the government. Only some of them were found to be faulty, resulting in the deaths of a number of young pilots, one of whom is presumed to be Joe’s son, Larry, still ‘missing in action’ after more than three years.

Steve, whom we never see, was thought to be responsible for the tragedy and is now serving time in prison while Joe was exonerated, not without controversy. Kate Keller (Dona Croll) is the mother of the family who cannot accept that she will never see her son again, while Ann (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), Steve’s daughter and Larry’s erstwhile love interest, is falling in love with Larry’s brother Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr), who reciprocates her feelings and has all our sympathy.

But how can they reveal their situation to Kate? Doctor, neighbour and friend Jim (Ewen Cummins) and his wife, Sue (Andrea Davy), on the surface tolerant and empathetic but carrying deeply felt resentment, add to our feelings of foreboding.

Difficult to see how this play can achieve the wished-for happy ending, then, and it seems more and more unlikely as the play progresses.

There’s something else, too, about this production, to make us think. If you’ve already seen the play, you’ll recognise its rather unexpected feature. It’s to do with the company. Talawa Theatre Company was founded in 1986 with one of its main aims to give performance opportunities for mainly black actors and directors. And if there’s any doubt that there’s plenty of black and ethnic talent to be found in the UK this production of All My Sons should go a long way to dispel it.

And the race question? Well, it would have been good to be able to reassure those who found themselves regarded as second-class citizens in America in 1947; to say, "Look guys, you know what? You’re not going to believe this, but in 2009—just over half a century from now—the US will actually have a black president. No kidding."

Reviewer: Anne Hill