Theatre: Sins of the father

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Theatre: All My Sons

Bristol Old Vic

It cannot have been easy being Arthur Miller's dad. The playwright's unforgiving dissection of the American father/son relationship suggests that life chez Miller may not have been altogether rosy. It was either an emotional battlefield ranking somewhere between tea with the Macbeths and a Mother's Day celebration in the Oedipus household, or a place of silence and abrupt masculine bonhomie with young Arthur bottling up a blend of idealism and resentment so strong that it filled the room like a cloud.

All My Sons is an everyday tale of pain, repression, denial and wartime profiteering, hinging on the fact that Joe (John Franklyn-Robbins) sold a batch of cracked cylinder heads to the Army which caused over 20 planes to crash, and got away with it. With its suggestion that business has responsibilities beyond profit and family interest, this is a particularly controversial choice for Bristol, where so much contemporary wealth and employment comes from the military aircraft industry.

Andy Hay's staging of Miller's 1940s play is not so much good in parts as half-good; more specifically, the second half. For the first 45 minutes, the actors seem to struggle with the dynamics of the script, failing to engender the necessary atmosphere of all-American suburban family perfection, drawing the looming dark edges with a lack of subtlety that can verge on melodrama, and painting the characters too small to fill Christopher Oram's monumental Norman Rockwell set. At times feeling like a play-reading, the playwright's delicate scene-setting and erection of the happy family castles for later demolition is performed as little more than Miller filler.

After the interval, though, what seems like a completely new set of actors peoples the stage. They have the same names as those in the first half, but are filled with a skill and energy totally divorced from the sluggish repartee of the first half. Whatever it is they've been drinking in the green room, I want some. Having spent the time before the interval giving a lukewarm portrayal of mater familias Kate with a mid-Atlantic accent which could at best be called Bostonian, Marlene Sidaway erupts on to the stage as a fully formed, three-dimensional, twanging Mid-West matriarch whose mental cocktail of denial, manipulation and concern rests on a bed of steel.

As her son Chris, John Sharian's resemblance to Marlon Brando is more than just physical. He is a smouldering, thundering pillar of raw dramatic energy. His emotions cascade across the footlights, lending a much-needed air of desperation, despair and depth to the violence which his considerable bulk suggests. And John Franklyn-Robbins' Joe is in many ways the perfect foil and father figure: bombastic, crotchety, demanding and yet pleading. He's a man who both worships his son and expects worship in return. His performance could be played slightly less close to the edge of caricature, but his presence (and ability to vanish when the focus shifts) is undeniable.

The only weak links are the characters of Frank and Lydia Lubey. Unlike Shakespeare, Arthur Miller does not create rustics for light comic relief, a fact which appears to have escaped Eric MacLennan, whose Frank appears to be a refugee from The Beverly Hillbillies, and Juliet Prew, who plays Lydia as a girl who speaks entirely in giggles and simpers like the Cadbury's Caramel bunny.

Overall, this is a production that could benefit from a considerably firmer hand on the directorial reins in the first half, but which explodes into a stunning display of high emotion and moving performances in the second. Those seeking the drama in the piece might want to sit out the first half in the bar; anyone viewing the second half may well need a stiff drink afterwards.

To 7 March. Box-office: 0117 987 7877

Toby O'Connor Morse

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