The Hook, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, theatre review: World premiere of an Arthur Miller play written in 1950 is quite a coup

An excellent ensemble production from James Dacre

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The Independent Culture

Arthur Miller's centenary year continues with a real coup – the world premiere of a screenplay, written in 1950 at the height of his powers, which he withdrew rather give in to political pressure from the studios and the FBI. 

With America entering the most paranoid phase of its Red scare, the climate was not propitious for a piece about a longshoreman who makes a defiant stand against the corrupt unions that controlled the New York dockyards in cahoots with the ship owners. Miller was told that his expose of racketeering was the fantasy of a left-wing radical and that the script should be changed so that all the gangsters became Communists. The head of the Hollywood unions threatened to organise a nationwide projectionists' boycott against the film, were it ever to be made. Miller refused to compromise.

Years of tracking down and collating the various surviving drafts of The Hook have gone into this first public showing of the material which has been adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson and is now brought to gripping, turbulent life in James Dacre's excellent ensemble production.  The irony with the abortive celluloid version is that its prospective director, Elia Kazan, would go on to make a celebrated movie about longshoremen – On The Waterfront with Marlon Brando which he turned into a coded self-defence for his notorious naming of names before HUAC.  Its indebtedness to The Hook is now evident from the start in the loading “accident” that crushes to death one of the rushed workers and in the contemptuous way the hiring boss tosses down a work disc for the humiliated men to fight over like animals.

The Hook_ Jamie Sives and company_by Manuel Harlan.jpg
The Hook: Jamie Sives and company

The pervasive sense of exploitation is intensified by Patrick Connellan's mighty design which frames the entire action in a dark, curved structure resembling a ship's hold.  Spouting a thick Brooklyn brogue, Jamie Sives is wonderfully driven as Marty Ferrara, who's torn between providing a steady living for his family and speaking truth to power. “If this fink can take from me my bread and butter, then I'm a slave in a chain!”, he declares to the men in the great scene where the sleek, scheming president of the local union (Joe Alessi) demands back the permit-book without which Marty will be unable to get work.  Sives projects both the furious, impatient fervour and the streak of naivety in this idealist.  When he stands for the presidency himself, he assumes that his fellow-labourers will back him to the hilt.  But once the incumbent's outrageous and blackly comic stuffing of the ballot box has been discounted, it turns out that he really has been re-elected.  The men are too anxious about their jobs to vote against the abusive power-nexus.

It's not an overly subtle piece but it's certainly inspiring and, as Dacre says, chimes painfully with out our own age of zero-hours contracts and diminished workers' rights. The dangerous tribalism, sneaky double-dealing and desperate closeness to destitution are conjured up with a vivid immediacy by the large, splendidly orchestrated cast.  Top marks for enterprise to this theatre and the co-producers, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.

To 27 June; 01604 624811; then at Liverpool Everyman, 1 – 25 July