Mark Ludmon reviews Arthur Miller’s All My Sons starring Sally Field and Bill Pullman now playing at London’s Old Vic Theatre.
All My Sons
Old Vic Theatre, London
Arthur Miller is very much in vogue right now, in London at least. As Theatre Royal Bath’s production of The Price ends its West End run, the Young Vic is about to open Death of a Salesman, while The Yard is staging a gender-switched The Crucible. After presenting his lesser-known play The American Clock in February, the Old Vic has now revived one of his best-known, All My Sons, under Headlong Theatre’s artistic director, Jeremy Herrin.
Clearly there is something about Miller’s visions of the American Dream gone sour that continues to resonate today, and not just with American audiences. As in many of his plays, an insistent morality underpins All My Sons, pointing to a need to take personal responsibility in the face of social and economic forces – just as pertinent today. Written just after the horrors of World War Two, it also asks how we can live with ourselves when we are haunted by demons from our past.
For Joe Keller, the past is his business’s involvement in making parts for fighter planes. His former colleague Steve languishes in jail for despatching faulty cylinder heads that led to 21 pilots dying but Joe seems untouched, an affable family man and, after his exoneration, a much-loved member of his community. For his wife Kate, the past is the loss of their son, Larry, a pilot who never returned from a mission during the war. After three years, she clings desperately to the belief that he is still alive somewhere.
Their other son, Chris, is looking more to the future, with plans to marry Larry’s fiancée, Ann, but even he is living with survivor’s guilt after his military service. Ann also happens to be Steve’s daughter, and her return to the Kellers’ home in Ohio, closely followed by her brother George, sets in motion a series of revelations that show how, for some people, the only way to keep on living is to live a lie and try to forget the past. The play’s portrayal of the sacrifices made for the sake of “business” is as relevant today in the capitalist West as it was in the US in 1947.
After more experimental stagings such as Ivo van Hove’s stripped-back View From the Bridge, Herrin sticks to Miller’s naturalistic style, with designer Max Jones creating the back yard of an Ohio home in fine detail. Bill Pullman is excellent as Joe Keller, a good-humoured joker with a subtle edge that hints at a hidden pain, while Sally Field brilliantly captures Kate’s steely self-delusion. They head a flawless cast including Colin Morgan as Chris, struggling to deal with his crumbling idealism, and Jenna Coleman as the charming but resolute Ann.
There are no clever tricks or avant-garde touches but, with a set of powerful performances and intelligent, nuanced direction, this is a great play done excellently. With an opening video sequence showing scenes of American life from the 1950s through to the present, Herrin demonstrates that All My Sons remains a powerful exploration of personal responsibility and the cost of ignoring it.
Running to 8 June 2019