All My Sons, Apollo, London
Paradise Found, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Sus, Broadway, Barking
Howard Davies gets the best from a superb cast in his faultless revival of Arthur Miller's classic 1947 tragedy
Sunday 30 May 2010
Joe Keller can't get away with it. Some punishment must, surely, be meted out when his amoral money-making has had such far-reaching consequences, wrecking others' lives.
You can't help thinking Keller could be a contemporary banker – on either side of the Atlantic – as you watch All My Sons, Arthur Miller's still-resonant modern classic which first cast a doubtful eye over the capitalist American dream in 1947.
Actually, Joe is a factory owner who turned a blind eye to flawed fighter-plane engines during the Second World War. That would be comparable, say, to selling dud bomb detectors for use in Afghanistan. Imagine.
Howard Davies's excellent West End revival – with David Suchet as Joe – doesn't have to update the action to bring out such topical parallels. They reverberate through this impeccable period production, even as Miller harks back to ancient dramas. The playwright's notion of slow-burning retributive justice knowingly echoes Greek tragedies.
What's brilliantly deceptive about Davies's staging is how pleasant Keller's backyard seems as he sits in the late-summer sunshine of Act One. William Dudley's set is verdantly charming: willow trees overhanging the veranda of a white clapboard house. In turn, Suchet only slowly and subtly reveals Keller's psychological dark side. Thus the audience experiences something close to his own son Chris's journey to shocked disillusionment, seeing Joe as a lovely guy at first.
Suchet is a devoted family man. Chortling benignly in his denim shirt, he plays sheriff games with the local kids. He tenderly chucks Stephen Campbell Moore's Chris under the chin after the lad confesses that he plans to marry his late pilot-brother's sweetheart, Ann (Jemima Rooper). He speaks with seemingly heartfelt understanding about forgiving the misdemeanours of his business partner Steve – Ann's father. And he kisses his own troubled wife, Zoë Wanamaker's Kate, as she flops, exhausted, on a garden bench.
Obsessively insisting that her first-born isn't dead, only missing in action, she is neurotically on edge but keeps up appearances, sporadically regaining her youthful sparkle. Both she and Suchet are beautifully naturalistic. There are, by contrast, a few technically clunking moments, including an interpolated storm scene where the willows swish to and fro, as if on curtain rails. And some of the cast seem fractionally stiff.
All soon hit their stride, however. Daniel Lapaine is outstanding as Ann's febrile brother, who eventually opens the Pandora's box of everyone's suppressed guilty consciences. The plot twists are taut, and Suchet's shifts – into last-ditch manoeuvring and haggard despair – are superbly charted. What at first seemed a domestic drama is, by the end, a resounding political diatribe. Appalled and furious, Chris condemns his father's failure to see that he had bigger social responsibilities beyond his own picket fence.
On paper, the Menier's musical world premiere sounds like an American dream of the showbiz variety, off-Broadway, off-London's West End. Adapted by Richard Nelson from Joseph Roth's novel The Tale of the 1002nd Night, Paradise Found is directed by Broadway's "living legend" Harold Prince (winner of 21 Tonys). An entire troupe has come over from the US with him, including Mandy Patinkin (the original Che in Evita). Prince's co-director/choreographer is Susan Stroman (also trophy-laden).
So, sheer bliss? Think again. Trip along to Paradise Found with sky-high expectations, and endure an evening of hell. This is a variation on the jukebox-musical genre with half a mind to be an operetta, nicking its tunes from Johann Strauss II. The humour is so lowbrow it makes your toes curl, with John McMartin as the Shah of Persia, doddering around in a sparkly turban, looking like a senile, end-of-the-pier Abanazar. He crudely points at his crotch, in case we hadn't grasped that he's suffering from erectile dysfunction as well as insomnia.
Alas we're prevented from falling unconscious for the rest of the show by McMartin's unfunny caterwauling, and then by Patinkin, inset left, who, as his chief eunuch, sounds as if his voice is breaking. He wearisomely veers between castrato-style twitters and a deeper tenor as he heads off to turn-of-the-century Vienna, hooking the Shah up with a prostitute called Mizzi (Kate Baldwin) who poses as the Empress.
The intimacy of the Menier is usually a delight but this production manages to be over-amplified and only semi-audible. Ellen Fitz-hugh's lyrics often get swallowed, and when you can hear them, they too waver between feeble satire and sentimental nonsense.
Occasionally, you close your eyes and hear a lovely waltz under all this schlock, but you're unlikely to come away humming. What's that ringing in your ears? The sound of a thwacking great flop.
As unmerited punishments go, Barrie Keefe's 1979 chamber play, Sus, is hair raising. This is a horrifying portrait of injustice and racism, where two white policemen arrest, psychologically torment, then beat up an innocent black Londoner, called Delroy. They smirk, anticipating the imminent crackdown on immigrants, as the news of Margaret Thatcher's election-night victory filters through to the cells.
One might think Keefe's coppers too nightmarish to credit, yet this fictional case is based on a real-life one. A touring co-production between Eclipse and the Young Vic, its air of claustrophobia is brilliantly handled by director Gholahan Obisesan – a name to watch. As the cops, Simon Armstrong and Laurence Spellman are sickeningly chilling. And as Delroy, Clint Dyer is superb, sliding from slouching drunkenness, through disbelief, to raw rage and devastation.
'All My Sons' (0844 412 4658) to 11 Sep; 'Paradise Found' (020-7907 7060) to 26 Jun; 'Sus' touring to 26 Jun (eclipse theatre.org.uk)
Kate Bassett evaluates Simon Gray's "lost gem", The Late Middle Classes, at the Donmar
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