First Night: The Man Who Had All The Luck, Donmar Warehouse, London

The girl, the garage and the mink-breeding isn't enough to leaven this lucky man's lot
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This was the first of Arthur Miller's plays to receive a professional production. A reworking of material in an unpublished novel, the piece was conspicuously not blessed with the good fortune that relentlessly shines on the hero. It folded after just four nights in November 1944.

Looking back 45 years later, the dramatist was able to pinpoint the problem with the premiere. The play is subtitled "a fable" but the original production insisted on presenting it as a "small-town genre comedy" instead of unapologetically bringing out the idea-driven quality of this story about a man in the grip of a mad superstition.

In Sean Holmes's sincere and strongly committed revival at the Donmar, the play emerges as an intermittently powerful but awkward attempt to create a drama with myth-like elements (Miller aptly described it as "the obverse of the Book of Job") in an otherwise realistically conceived mid-West community. The fresh-faced, boyish Andrew Buchan plays David Beeves, a self-taught young car mechanic who, apparently as a result of a series of lucky flukes, gets the girl, the garage, the land, and the mink-breeding business.

His unbroken run of good fortune is in sharp contrast to the blows suffered by others. Indeed, the most moving section of the play is the one that looks forward, in its focus on competitive siblings and paternal betrayal, to later Miller works such as All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. David's father has groomed his other son, Amos, for baseball stardom, but the solitary indoor winter training that was supposed to ensure his success is the very thing that distorts the boy's game and wrecks his chances. Felix Scott is desperately affecting in the scene where, having been turned down by the talent scout, poor arrested Amos, unfitted for any other form of life, wakes up to the terrible cost of his father's fanaticism.

David is driven paranoid by his luck, which, in the way reward disconnects from merit, seems to him to betoken moral anarchy in the universe. He both desires and dreads the catastrophe that will expiate this paradoxical curse, and he tempts fate accordingly. Informed by the arbitrariness with which lives were ruined during the Depression and by the fatalistic drift in Europe towards fascism, the play is a parable about the need to take personal responsibility.

But the placid Buchan never seems sufficiently unhinged by the blessings that fall like blows and the play, which has its stodgy and laboriously explicit patches and is too evenly paced and repetitive, fails to develop a rhythm that might intensify our sense of his isolating nightmare.