THEATRE / Living dream: Paul Taylor on Death of a Salesman at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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The Independent Culture
American drama's compulsion to pin everything on the dysfunctional family could be seen at its distorting worst recently in The Destiny of Me, Larry Kramer's disappointing follow-up to The Normal Heart. Its protagonist's crusade against the US government's stance on Aids became entangled with an autobiographical Neil Simon-type memory play, flashbacks filling us in on the hero's history as a gay misfit in a smothering Jewish home.

Instead of bringing the public and the private into illuminating proximity, the two- pronged approach here simply confused the issue. Counter- productively, you began to feel that the hospitalised hero's prickly antagonism towards authority was less a matter of principle than of Oedipal reflex-action.

One virtue of Kramer's play is that it increases your respect for that classic American family drama in which the psychological and social are seamlessly enmeshed, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. That nexus comes across even when, like Matthew Warchus in this fine revival, a director chooses to give little impression of an oppressive society out to destroy the individual. There would have been a great deal of scope for this on the Playhouse's wide, open stage. But Warchus, the programme reveals, wants to present Willie Loman as the embodiment rather than the victim of the American dream.

In practice, however, this distinction proves academic. Ken Stott's excellent performance proves it's quite possible to be both. With his sloping shoulders, supplicant curved-back dumpiness and dark kiss-curl, there's something touchingly penguin-like about his fagged-out demeanour. But there is also a blackmailing avidity about the way he raises his beaky profile waiting for his sons to feed him with false hopes. His speech has the sound of an unenthusiastic sales pitch infected with a disastrous hint of desperation. You feel he is drowning in an ethos it is too late for him to stop peddling.

With suggestive economy (a translucent curtain; free- standing door-frames), Warchus directs the flashbacks so that they have a disarmingly invasive, hallucinatory quality. Capturing just the right degree of overbearing, idealised unreality, Willie's successful brother Ben comes and goes through a receding vista of fluorescently-lit frames. By the time Willie takes the same route to suicide, it has become a stark black road.

Ellie Haddington, with hoarse fervour, makes a most moving Mrs Loman, a persuasive advocate for her husband. Jude Law gives a fine edge of callow calculation to the collusive son, Happy, and as Biff, James Purefoy has the hunched misery of the golden boy who failed, even if he can't make the hotel scene ring wholly true. It's a compelling account, sensitively projecting the play's bitter lyricism. But I could have done without the snow during the funeral.

To 5 March. Booking: 0532 442111