Broken Glass

Arthur Miller
Octagon, Bolton
(2006)

Robert Pickavance as Phillip Gellburg and Barbara Marten as Sylvia Gellburg

The second play in the Octagon's Arthur Miller mini-season is another co-production with York Theatre Royal, directed, like the recent production of East is East currently on tour, by the Royal's artistic director Damian Cruden.

Like many of Miller's plays, Broken Glass is an intense family drama set against a backdrop of much wider issues. The title refers to Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass, when the homes and businesses of Jews throughout Germany were smashed in a single night on 9th November 1938. The play, however, is set in a New York Jewish family at the same time. Phillip Gellburg works hard for his boss and is proud of being the only Jew ever to work for the firm. His wife, Sylvia, has suddenly and mysteriously lost the use of her legs. Their doctor, Harry Hyman, can find no physical cause for her paralysis and attributes it to a hysterical reaction to her obsession with injustices against the Jews in Germany that she reads about avidly in the newspapers, but it later comes to light that this may just be a channel for deeper problems between Phillip and Sylvia.

Patrick Connellan's set consists mainly of a large open space with a wooden floor and a single door at the back. The backdrop is a plain wall with a row of shuttered windows along the top that serve no particular purpose apart from the rather obvious symbolism of them being gradually opened in the later scenes. Some of the scene changes are very long as beds and desks are moved on and off, in half-light rather than in blackout, sometimes without any obvious purpose. This appears to be a directorial concept (just as in East is East) as scenes are connected with extra unscripted action to avoid going to black, and some of this holds the play up (one of the characters is supposed to be paraplegic so has to be carried or wheeled on and off) or makes little sense (a number of times, Phillip's boss storms out of his own office, and Phillip is helped to walk off after a near-fatal heart attack). This concept also serves to slacken the pace of the whole production, which is already very slow in many of the scenes, making it drag quite a bit in places.

None of the problems can be blamed on the actors, who all work extremely hard and expend maximum emotional energy even though the end result is rather unfocused. Robert Pickavance turns in a very intense performance as Philip, as does Barbara Marten as his wife Sylvia. There is excellent support also from Richard Heap as Harry, Rachel Ogilvy as Harry's wife Margaret, Olwen May as Sylvia's sister Harriet and Michael Roberts as Phillip's boss Stanton Case. Some unfortunate positioning leaves us looking at some of the actors' backs or blocks them from view for extended periods and sometimes leaves them in darkness while the lighting operator catches up with the actors' moves, but they all turn in impressive performances.

Despite some very fine performances, the poor pace in this production makes it feel far too long, and I spotted quite a few yawns around the auditorium long before the end. This could not be more different from the last production of A View From the Bridge, which was totally compelling from beginning to end and will undoubtedly be one of the best north west productions of 2006.

"Broken Glass" runs until 25th March 2006 and then plays at York Theatre Royal from 7th - 29th April

J.D. Atkinson reviewed this production when it moved to the Theatre Royal, York

Reviewer: David Chadderton