All My Sons

Arthur Miller
Mercury, Colchester
(2003)

This Mercury Theatre Company production of Miller's 1947 play is a puzzle. Despite the excellent credentials of all involved and the clarity of the theatre's stated objective 'to inspire, engage and entertain', it does none of the above, and this powerful indictment of post-war America that launched Miller's career never manages to leave the runway.

Designer Michael Vale's vertical sky-blue box punctured with unframed door and windows starkly dominates the stage, neither lending spatial cohesion to the acting space nor making sense as the home of an affluent family of the period. It certainly doesn't look like anything you'd come across in a mid-west suburb and is at odds with the wicker furniture in the family's back yard, where the play is set. If may work symbolically to suggest the isolation of the individuals on stage, but it fails to give due consideration to the play's realism.

The company struggle bravely with their mid-west accents and lapses would be pardonable if only the characters managed to convince. Paul Moriarty as Joe Keller, the man grown rich from his corrupt wartime airplane parts business, is the most consistently transatlantic, and he does manage to convey the blind complacency of the paterfamilias for whose moral error everyone else is paying. The desperate hope of his wife Kate (Christine Absalom) that son Larry will one day return after three years missing in action, requires a nuanced psychological performance. However, at key moments both direction and performance are wildly misjudged, with shrieking and frantic dashing round the stage used to signify an extremity of emotion. At times it was difficult not to laugh with embarrassment.

Their other son, Chris (Philip Ralph), is a war hero unable to adjust after his traumatic experiences, and a man who is an inspiration in the community. This guy, though, looks as if he's spent the war tied to his mother's apron strings. The act of sawing off the broken trunk of his bother's memorial tree in the back yard should be full of implied emotion and significance, but here it's as if a stagehand has come on to tidy up the set. Crucially, when we should be absorbed in the character's inner life we're worrying about the actor's dubious facility with a handsaw.

Miller's play reveals the lies and moral cowardice at the heart of family and national life in post-war America. It demands psychological realism if we are to believe the extraordinary scenes we witness and nuanced delivery to allow the lines their symbolic significance. Unfortunately the Mercury's direction and acting do neither.

Far from elucidating the play's layers of meaning, the acting draws attention to its own shortcomings, with actors unable fully to inhabit their characters or invest them with any emotional depth or range. Nor are they helped by Matthew Smith's directing, which lacks any sense of the weft and warp of the play's comic and tragic elements. The denouement device of the lost son's letter is clumsily handled and the closing minutes come close to parody. What the evening offers is at best incoherence, at worst bathos; and the subtleties of Miller's play are the casualties of this ill-judged production.

"All My Sons" runs until 22nd November

Reviewer: Jill Sharp