In suspended animation

Mr Peters' Connection | Almeida Theatre, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In addition to its claim to be the world's most experienced airline, Pan Am used to advertise itself with the phrase "Suddenly you're somewhere else". Even if the title character of Arthur Miller's latest play were not a former Pan Am pilot, that line would rather neatly describe the predicament of this elderly man who nods off one afternoon and wakes - or does he? - to discover himself in the company of his loved ones, both living and dead.

In addition to its claim to be the world's most experienced airline, Pan Am used to advertise itself with the phrase "Suddenly you're somewhere else". Even if the title character of Arthur Miller's latest play were not a former Pan Am pilot, that line would rather neatly describe the predicament of this elderly man who nods off one afternoon and wakes - or does he? - to discover himself in the company of his loved ones, both living and dead.

Mr Peters and his audience find themselves in intriguingly uncertain territory here. "Conflict is not my game any more; or suspense; I really don't like trying to figure out what's going on," observes Peters, a carefully planted statement which applies to the play as much as it does to the character. This 80-minute chamber piece abandons traditional dramatic action and instead weaves its spell by teasing out the tribulations and hopes of its central figure who finds himself in suspended animation, re-rehearsing his relationships and trying to make sense of his long life.

Miller, 85 this year, has long been a playwright of strong convictions. Indeed, his finest play, The Crucible, used the metaphor of the Salem witch trials to examine the then contemporary horrors of McCarthy's own witchhunts - which soon caught up with the playwright himself. But some of his other plays are significantly weakened by the author's chilly certainties. And, as Peters tells us, "I enjoy being right" but, unusually, this play is notable for the doubts that swirl through what is largely a solo turn with visits from witnesses for the defence and prosecution.

The director Michael Blakemore has evidently decided to anchor the play more securely than the stage directions suggest. His staging of Miller's ambiguous opening makes it absolutely clear that Peters has drifted off into a snooze, and his subsequent use of music - substituting the perky theme from The Magic Flute for the stipulated waltz - also pushes the pace. It's a logical decision when faced by a text in which scenes float by with a dreamlike lack of clear connnection. But in spite of Peter J Davison's design, which splashes Manhattan sidewalks and skyscrapers across artfully placed gauzes, the overly deliberate nature of the staging plays against the rhythm of the writing.

In fact, the one thing that does need more precision is the central performance. John Cullum lends Peters an endearingly shambling, almost shaggy quality but, at the moment, it's not just Peters who keeps getting sidetracked by emotional memories; the actor does, too. The fiercely questioning concentration which should propel him through the dream is missing, so the theatrical temperature keeps dropping.

Nicholas Woodeson does a nicely sinister, almost Groucho-style turn as Peters' late brother, and Jan Waters peps up proceedings as the wife whose happiness is inexhaustible but the production as a whole never quite coheres. Ironically, Blakemore's admirable desire to demystify the diffuse writing may have served to expose the vagueness of the drama.

Comments