Paul T Davies reviews Arthur Miller’s The American Clock now playing at the Old Vic Theatre, London
The American Clock
The Old Vic.
14 February 2019
The opportunity to see two lesser performed Arthur Miller plays in two days underlines the lasting effect the Great Depression of the 1930s had on him and his writing career. With the character Moe representing Miller’s father, there is much autobiographical material in The American Clock. But whereas The Price, currently playing at the Wyndhams, is more linear and traditional in structure, The American Clock, written in 1980, is more episodic and fragmented, covering the ten years or so of the Depression.
The play is billed as a vaudeville, and that’s the strength of this production. Director Rachel Chavkin, following her success at the National with Hadestown, links the scenes well with music and excellent choreography by Ann Yee, the live music and singing enjoyable throughout. Yet they also highlight why this play is rarely staged, it’s simply not that good. It never really gels, some scenes are more effective than others, and Miller’s anti-capitalism is so strident it lectures the audience in places. Central to the text are the Baum family, who, as the depression bites, are shown having to sell everything just to survive until their beloved piano is taken away. Chavkin, however, divides each member of the Baum family between three actors, and although this gives a sense of universality, it dilutes our connection to the family, distancing us and muddying the waters somewhat. They are certainly not the Lomans.
Thankfully this is a good ensemble. In the narrator role of Robertson, Clarke Peters brings elegance and smoothness to the role, guiding us well through the events, although he is saddled with mounds of exposition. There is fine work from Francesca Mills in various roles, Golda Rosheuvel, who is in excellent voice and Ewan Wardrop as a tap dancing head of General Electricity. There are some excellent set pieces, particularly the Dance Marathons, which become uglier as the depression goes on, and the signs that tell us what year we are in gradually become more dilapidated and homemade as poverty increases.
Strangely, its episodic nature reminded me somewhat of Brecht’s Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, though, of course, we approach things from an entirely opposite angle there. But both plays show the devastating impact of political decisions and circumstances on ordinary citizens and as a reflection of American history, The American Clock is an interesting watch. But as theatre, it begins to plod desperately in the second half and crawls to a conclusion. If you admire Miller, it’s worth seeing a lesser known and staged work, and there is much to enjoy within this good ensemble piece.