Miller's short tale about the meaning of life

Mr Peters' Connections | Almeida Theatre, London; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Barbican Theatre, London; A Small Family Business | Festival Theatre, Chichester; The Mikado | New Victoria Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
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The Independent Culture

Arthur Miller's Mr Peters' Connections is the sort of play authors write when they're in their 80s. It is short (80 minutes), impatient with dramatic conventions, infused by memory, and unsure about the meaning of life. Mr Peters' recurring question is: "What is the subject?"

Arthur Miller's Mr Peters' Connections is the sort of play authors write when they're in their 80s. It is short (80 minutes), impatient with dramatic conventions, infused by memory, and unsure about the meaning of life. Mr Peters' recurring question is: "What is the subject?"

We need some help before we can see our way through the plot. Fortunately, Miller tells us in the preface to the published version that the play takes place in Mr Peters' mind. Some of the characters, like his wife and daughter, are alive; his brother and his lover are dead. Mr Peters is acutely conscious of the nearness of death: "If you planted an apple tree when I was born, you'd be cutting it down for firewood now," he says. Although he was a pilot, who flew fighters in the Second World War and was a Pan Am captain for 25 years, there seems to be plenty of Miller in him.

The play is set in a building in New York City which once housed a bank, and Mr Peters has strong opinions about banks: "In those days banks were built like fortresses, not salad bars. They had those gigantic, beautifully filigreed brass gates, and they did not go round shystering people, begging them to borrow money. No, they sat behind their little brass grilles and suspected you." (The tour of this play, incidentally, is sponsored by Barclays.)

There is still plenty of life in the language. Mr Peters' brother believes women live longer because they eat salad: "Without women, you could forget lettuce." His daughter eats bananas because she is a dancer, and she declares that dancers need trace elements for their knees. Bananas recur as a theme. Mr Peters give a mouth-watering description of an old-fashioned banana split ("four balls of ice cream on a sliced banana, covered with hand-whipped cream, chocolate sauce and a maraschino cherry on top... for 25 cents"). He wonders where all the sweetness has gone.

Mr Peters is played by John Cullum, a New York actor whose work is unfamiliar on the London stage. His performance should be used in evidence against the stitch-up by the actors' unions on both sides of the Atlantic which prevents the completely free movement of actors between the West End and Broadway. His hair is thinning, there are bags under his eyes; though he has a stoop, he can rise to his full height to emphasise a point. The voice ranges from irritation to bewilderment. Cullum inhabits Mr Peters' body.

Michael Blakemore, the director, has an uncanny ability to get good performances of American characters out of English actors. Nicholas Woodeson and Rachel Woolrich stand out here, even though she does not speak a line. The set by Peter J Davison seems to tower way above the Almeida's ceiling. At the end of the play the lighting (by Mark Henderson) isolates Mr Peters and his daughter. "Please stay," she says. "I love you, darling," he replies. "I wonder... could that be the subject!" It was the first time the old man had slipped into egregious sentimentality.

The audience at the Almeida sat on their hands on the first night. The reverse was the case at the other American offering in London last week. At the Barbican as part of the BITE:00 season, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company from Chicago got a noisy, standing ovation for a bravura performance of that much-loved psychedelic melodrama, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Steppenwolf is an ensemble with stars, rather like the early National Theatre under Olivier, and two of its founders feature in this vehicle for their talent and their philosophy. (The play is by Dale Wasserman based on Ken Kesey's novel in which a lunatic asylum is a metaphor for Sixties America.) Terry Kinney, the director, explains that he was a college student when he fell in love with the concept of the anti-hero crushed by authority.

Gary Sinise, the second founder, plays Randle McMurphy, the war hero, sexual athlete and gambler who is emblematic of the free spirits of the Sixties.

It is a show-off part for an actor, and Sinise takes full advantage of it, although he does not duck the uncomfortable fact that McMurphy is also a bullying braggart. At moments I felt sympathy for Nurse Ratched, the authority figure, wonderfully played by Amy Morton.

The audience looked unusually young for a London theatre, but there was no doubt whose side they were on, even now - a time of Nurse Ratcheds, says Kinney. But Kesey's simple plot feels dated now, and what justifies the applause is a precision performance from a group of fine actors.

Chichester's production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business is an exercise in recent theatre history. It is middle-period Ayckbourn, written in 1987 between the dark family farces of his early years, and before he became absorbed by technology and communication in the Nineties. (I generalise.) The interest was to see how it held up.

We get one of Ayckbourn's ingenious theatrical devices. Scenes are set in the rooms of three different houses, but they are played in the same basic kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom. It enables the play to move along without set changes, and that still works.

Nigel Planer is thinning on top and has grown a moustache to play Jack MacCracken, a good, innocent man who takes over the family's furniture business. The rest of the family are less virtuous and have been creaming off the profits for years, running a racket with an Italian family. This being Ayckbourn, we know there will be no sentimental triumph of good over evil.

The good man is brought down by family loyalty, not to the firm but to his drug-taking daughter. By the end of the evening, Planer's accent has become more broadly estuarian to mark his authority as the Godfather of the family business. Indeed, this happens so quickly that it is hard to keep up. As the curtain falls, his daughter, for whom the original, small act of corruption was carried out, is dying in the bathroom. It is very black, but it is a case of the blacker the better, because that is where Ayckbourn's best laughs come from.

There are good performances from Serena Evans, Christopher Luscombe and Issy van Randwyck. Nigel Planer's comic timing is spot on. Rachel Kavanaugh, the director, never lets the pace slacken. Middle-period Ayckbourn may not quite rival the early farces but the ravages of time have done it no serious harm.

The New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme have transplanted The Mikado to a cricket pitch. Pooh Bah is an umpire; the Mikado himself is a member of MCC, but most of their words stubbornly belong to gentlemen from Japan. Gilbert and Sullivan would have admired the versatility of the two-man band (Timothy Sutton and Richard Atkinson) who play no fewer than 10 instruments. They perform from the scorers' box which shows the score is 124 for 7 off 38 overs. It suggested to me that the players had been given a sticky wicket to bat on, and weren't in control of their game.

'Mr Peters' Connections': Almeida, N1 (020 7359 4404) to 2 Sept; 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest': Barbican, EC2 (020 7638 8891) to Sat; 'A Small Family Business': Festival Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312) to 30 Sept; 'The Mikado': New Victoria Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme (01782 717962) to Sat

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