ALL My Sons, the first success from the great American playwright Arthur Miller, returns to The Royal Exchange after twenty five years.
It has an all black cast. Is that important? Yes and no. Does it make a difference to our understanding of the work? Possibly. Slightly.
Set in post-war America, it tells the story of a typical family coming to terms with their war experience and looking towards a brighter future. Joe Keller fathered two sons: Larry, the pilot, missing in action, and Chris, returned from the war and ready to move his life forward. Their mother Kate convinces herself that Larry is still alive, while Joe and Chris believe it is time to gently break that belief. This is essential if Chris is to succeed in his wish to marry Ann, previously Larry’s girlfriend.
But there are other complications. Joe was accused of manufacturing a batch defective aircraft parts thereby causing the deaths of US airmen. He was found not guilty, but his business partner, Ann’s father, is in jail.
The superbly-structured story unfolds slowly. Each member of Miller’s highly natural web of characters serves a carefully constructed purpose in story-telling and atmosphere-building. Buffong’s direction heightens this so the sense of a small developing and supportive community underpins the first act as we meet current and previous neighbours and gradually discover what they know and feel.
Disappointingly, there were a few occasions when audibility was a problem. I’m sure these will rapidly disappear, but in a production of this class they should be eradicated during previews. That’s my only criticism.
Don Warrington, most widely known as lodger Philip Smith in Rising Damp, provides a powerful performance as Joe Keller, businessman and family man, proud of his achievements. Doña Croll is outstanding as Kate Keller, playing her as a strong woman with a sense of humour.
Chiké Okonkwo gives a delightful performance as son Chris, the moral compass of the family, possibly the neighbourhood. He’s warm, engaging, and copes superbly with the demand of the Royal Exchange’s theatre in the round.
Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Ann, is dignified and proactive, driving our perception of the story forward. She gets the best dresses too. Simon Coombs, previously seen in Raisin In The Sun, brings an edgy presence to George, Ann’s sister: another character who helps reveal the truth.
Roger Griffiths is Jim Bayliss, a charming neighbour and doctor torn between supporting his family by tending to wealthy patients and following his real desire of research work, which is unlikely to pay the family bills. Andrea Davy attracts attention in a small but vital role as Jim’s wife Sue, pointing out the difficulties Chris’s ethical stance can be to a father with a family to support.
Delroy Atkinson, as neighbour Frank, provides delightful support for the superstitious elements of Kate’s nature and Bethan Mary-James, as his delightful wife, shows George the perils of standing still.
There is no weak link in this cast, and no weak link in Miller’s writing of the minor cast parts as all have a particular and a general function in the story telling. The same story could have been told with a cast of four or five, but it would be far less satisfying.
This is director Michael Buffong’s third production at the Royal Exchange. His first, A Raisin in the Sun, was one of the strongest pieces of theatre I have ever seen, and his second, Private Lives, a remarkable delivery of a well-known classic. An established partnership with designer Ellen Cairns continues to produce a detailed and static set which helps create the mood, encourages natural cast movement and allows the audience to concentrate on the dramatic action.
This is a joint production with Talawa Theatre Company, the UK’s main black-led theatre company. It has an all black cast. Is that important? Yes and no. Does it make a difference to our understanding of the work? Possibly. Slightly. See it for yourself and decide.
Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 26 October 2013.
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