Launching a new regime at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, its recently installed artistic director, David Thacker, has returned to the same in-the-round concept he favoured for his Old Vic production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons 17 years ago. Beneath the glass floor of this set there's a murky layer, suggesting mechanical wreckage. The audience surrounds the communal yard where characters tread sometimes warily, sometimes recklessly, on a transparent surface that looks as treacherous as the unfolding narrative and as fragile as the threads holding the guilt-wracked Keller family together. Miller's apple tree, with its trunk snapped and its fruit fallen, is a prominent visual image.
The play is an American nightmare of love, greed, death and culpability in which Thacker's own use of metaphor would be less effective if his staging weren't so brilliant. The production could scarcely be more gripping, the emotional energy between these flawed people could hardly fizz more resonantly or the cracks in their veneer shatter with more tragic inevitability.
Kate and Joe Keller exist in a private fantasy world. She is fanatical in her belief that her pilot son, missing presumed dead, will return; he is buffered by the normality of small-town life against the truth that he, and not his imprisoned business partner, was responsible for selling flawed airplane cylinder heads and sending young pilots to certain death.
From his twitching shoulder to his rigid fingers, George Irving makes the intensity of Joe's belief in his skewed family values devastating. The way in which Margot Leicester conveys tightly-buttoned mental anguish as his wife is as clear in her boldly articulated gestures as in her words. And, as Chris, Oscar Pearce conveys the frustration of their decent, naïve son whose ambitions are thwarted by the deception his parents practise to survive.
Her father, Keller's partner, may have been a mouse but – in a striking debut by Vanessa Kirkby – Ann, the girlfriend of, in turn, both Keller brothers, comes across as remarkably assured while Mark Letheren, as her brother, brings a barely contained savagery to his monologue. No-one shrinks from the painful family moments or catastrophic revelations. All My Sons is a highlight of the Octagon's focus on Miller, its dramatic truth made wonderfully vivid.
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