Theatre: One thing is certain: life isn't cheap

WHEN I was little, my family whiled away long car journeys with a game called "Up in the Attic". You had to invent and remember, for each letter of the alphabet, strange items that might be found there.

The Franz family's attic, however, contains something considerably more exotic than an "armadillo", "kazoo", or the ever-present "X-ray machine". It contains the life of Victor Franz (Clive Mantle), twisted into bitterness through filial self-sacrifice; the demands of his wife (Susan Wooldridge), longing for him to finally fulfil himself after 28 years with the NYPD; and a lot of furniture to be sold to sharp antiques dealer Gregory Solomon (Bill Wallis). Oh, and being an Arthur Miller play, it contains a hefty dose of inter-brother conflict and the ghost of a father who made a resounding, even overwhelming impression on their lives.

The Price is a bleak sermon for those turning 50. It explores the shaping of lives through one simple, reiterated thought: "There's a price to be paid". Wherever we are when we get to 50, be it a successful surgeon like Victor's brother, Walter (Malcolm Tierney), or a simple man like Victor who failed to fulfil his promise because of self-sacrifice, it is the result of what went before.

The decisions we make always mean that something must go by the wayside - that is the price that has to be paid. It is a simple thought: perhaps too simple to sustain a full-length play on its own.

As a result, this is a play with two distinct parts, the first act dominated by Solomon, the fast-talking, elderly Jewish antique dealer, whom Wallis presents as a kosher Richard Attenborough. It is a marvellously written part, with ample opportunity for comedy interspersed with sharp slivers of pathos, and Wallis hammers at this Carrara marble script like Michelangelo. It is a bravura performance, to which Mantle acts as little more than a feed.

The second act centres on fraternal conflict and the painful ripping off of emotional Band-aids. As the successful brother, Tierney slides mellifluously through the great rolling monologues, a gushing brook of language gliding from his lips with the smooth, Americanised refinement of Alistair Cooke. And then Mantle finally comes into his own in a bubble of rage whose impact is all the greater for its stark contrast with his usual "gentle giant" persona.

The Price is not Miller's most moving or most thought-provoking piece. It makes its point about us being the product of the choices we have made with a dull grind rather than fireworks. But this production is a soundly crafted piece which can proudly display a sign saying "Actors At Work". It's solid, but not stolid.

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