Heart Productions and Not/Applicable
Union Theatre, Southwark
Publicity for this play links the late 1950s recession with the world financial situation of today but, though economic difficulties trigger part of the plot and a bank manager is one of its characters, this is not a play about capitalism and economic theory but a personal family story that reflects wider issues as well as exploring the conflict between first born sons and younger siblings across two generations.
It is set in the American South, in a small town called Sluice Creek (if I heard aright) where banker Donald Pearson (Bret Jones) doubles as preacher. His elder brother John (Francis Kennedy) inherited the family store. John intends to hand it on to his son Will (Damian Sommerlad), though it is his younger son Gilbert (Thomas Coombes) who has more interest in the business. Will wants to be a writer and is looking for a way out - haven't we been here before? Ann (Mariam Bell), a local girl from a difficult home is keen on him but he's not quite so interested in her
I don't know whether dramatist Frank Bramwell is an American (I think not), but to me this seemed a very convincing piece of Americana. It is a script that fits into a way of presenting American life that is familiar from Steinbeck to Miller. From our first meeting with John's wife Mary at the opening of the play we could be watching a housewife from a fifties advertisement, indeed maybe one from much earlier, or a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post brought to life. Jennifer Belander's Mary even walks like a 1950s American! Her passive, supportive, patience-playing wife is the calm centre of this production until she flares into action and reveals her strength as it bursts into delayed action in the second act.
Miss Belander is, I understand, American and perhaps that is why the accents sound so convincing to this British ear, yet (once I got used to them) comprehensible. Arnaud Mugglestone's direction gets strong performances from everyone which partly makes up for the long first act goes on building up background and information for far too long, always anticipating that something powerful is going to happen but not delivering it. It is nearly two hours in (including the interval) before play and production let off their fireworks and performances explode.
"Banks - always the same; entice you to borrow money when you don't need it, snatch it back when you do. Ruination of this country, sucking dry the blood of the very businesses who made this country great," says John Pearson and his banker brother doesn't seem to disagree, though much more canny in working the system. These people seem to see the banks as separate from the society they believe in, though I don't think the author expects us to be quite so naïve. The elder Pearsons are shocked that Will is writing for a radical paper and seems to be supporting communism. The town is being reinvigorated by an apparent miracle that is filling the church and bringing in visitors to swell the economy. The nature of the miracle wasn't at first explained (or I missed it when initially coping with the accent), though all became clear later. This is a world which cannot understand altruistic human intervention and would much rather attribute all good things to God. The play makes a powerful attack upon the gullibility of the Bible Belt and its narrow thinking but, rather than presenting reasoned arguments, offers an emotion response to the ideas of fundamentalism and hard slog profit making that are reflected in its drama of family conflict.
Until 8th November 2008
Reviewer: Howard Loxton