THEATRE / Past master: Paul Taylor on All My Sons at the Oxford Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
So the message is that Arthur Miller, now 78, has a brand new play on at the National Theatre in the autumn. Given the profuseness of his recent late-flowering, the only surprise is that this work isn't a trilogy. The article on Miller in last Saturday's Magazine suggested that Broken Glass, set in the Thirties, fixes on the eternally topical theme of the culpable discontinuity between private concerns and public morality. On Sarajevo, Miller was quoted as saying: 'They blew up 16 children and did you see anyone pause on his way to lunch? That's what the play is about.'

In which case, his latest work harks directly back to his first theatrical success, All My Sons (1947), a drama in which a businessman is eventually forced to confront the link between his sale of cracked cylinder heads to the American Air Force and the crash of 21 P40s over Australia. To him, the initial deceit and the ruining of the colleague who took the rap were justified because nothing is more important than protecting and providing for your family. As the chickens flock home to roost, this morality is exposed to some sharp questioning.

Hettie Macdonald's absorbing and beautifully designed account of the play for the Oxford Stage Company is a little uneven. Playing Chris, the son who survived the war, Gary Mavers is fine at conveying how awkward it is being the one in whom all the father's hopes have now to be invested, yet there's an impermeable golden-boy blandness about him that made it hard to believe that the character is haunted by the fact that every day men in his company died and he didn't. A stronger sense of this is crucial because it explains why the young man is so especially sickened by the idea that his father let airmen go to their deaths for Chris's sake.

Ann Penfold is excellent as Kate, the mother, communicating not only her dogmatic delusion that the missing airman son is still alive, but subtly demonstrating, too, how hard it is to gauge the extent to which this woman's stubborn tyrannous fantasy is maintained not from personal need but to protect her husband. To pronounce the boy dead is to convict her husband of his death - though the casuality here is a matter not of machine parts but of devolved shame.

As the father, Michael Cronin captures well the stolid, slightly lumbering geniality and the consciousness of being a 'card' of a man who has convinced himself that getting along well with the neighbours and displaying waggish social ease is a sign that you can have done nothing wrong. A profound piece of illogic that Cronin makes psychologically convincing, though the underlying intensities both of this character and of the drama as a whole could be signalled with a bit more bite.

It was obvious, none the less, that the audience were deeply moved. The dramaturgy of the piece may creak a bit from time to time but the relevance of the central argument is as pointed as ever. It's pretty certain that Broken Glass won't have the Ibsenite corsetry; it will be doing well, though, if it has the same undeniability of moral impact.

Arts Centre, Coventry to 12 March, then on tour (details: 0865 245781)