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All My Sons – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Writer: Arthur Miller

Director: Michael Buffong

Reviewer: Jim Gillespie

[rating:4]

All My Sons - Royal Exchange TheatreThe Talawa Theatre Company bring their all black company to the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre for this production of Miller’s 1947 unsettling drama which explores the dark recesses of the American Dream. While this is the play which made his name, and whose initial broadway run lasted almost a year, it is still an early play, and bears some of the faults of immaturity, principally an excess of ideas, and an over-supply of peripheral characters, who add little to the central drama.

Joe Keller is a successful business owner, the head of a loving family, and a pillar of the community. His engineering firm makes parts for warplanes, and the air force has benefited his business, while costing him his son, who has been listed as missing in action in the recent war. His business partner is in prison for knowingly selling faulty engine parts to the military, but Joe is apparently blameless. Against this background the family play out their relationships with one another, and the ghosts from the past that continue to haunt them. A domestic drama on one level, but one which lays questions at the heart of public and personal morality, social responsibility, guilt, forgiveness and redemption: Everything connects.

The fact that Talawa field an all-black cast has aroused some interest and even some argument on social media, so it is worth settling the issue of the relevance or otherwise of this aspect of the production. Some theatrical companies – Propeller for example – deliberately cast single gender productions, and bring fresh nuances to character interactions as a result. The skin colour of the actors in All My Sons has no relevance whatsoever, and neither adds or subtracts from the outcome. That the company has devoted itself to addressing the marginalisation of ethnic minorities in cultural life is to be applauded; but the applause for the production is earned on the stage.

And significant applause is merited. This is unquestionably a play of two halves, with the author himself acknowledging that the first act was designed to be slow, and also declaring his debt to Ibsen. Talawa pay due heed to the speed restriction, and while this can be frustrating at times for the audience, it helps to build the base for the momentum of the second act and its climactic denouement, with everyone playing their part in the crescendo. This called for full contributions from all members of a talented cast, who sometimes had to underplay the first part of the drama to unleash the uncoiled energy of the second. At the interval, I sipped my wine to the mental refrain “under”: Underwhelmed; underpowered; underplayed. I think I ignored “restraint”. Less is more. Sometimes.

This was an ensemble piece, and individual performances depend on the strength of the team. So while the peripheral characters add little to the core tragedy – and it is hard not to see this in terms of classical Greek Tragedy – they build the social backdrop to Joe Keller’s fall from grace, and did so with some finesse. The central family drama was carried by strong performances from Don Warrington and Dona Croll. Chike Okonokwo as Chris, and Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Annie run the gamut of emotions, often at the sidelines of the main action, with some distinction. Chris, who appears to carry the flame of honour and honesty from the battlefield to the business, does well not to transfer the stiffness of the moral high ground to a wooden performance.

This is now a period piece, and also distanced from a British audience by geography. Few in the audience would have any knowledge of 1940’s American fashions, tastes and habits. But it felt and looked authentic, from the zoot suits to the tea trays. Other technical features were understated, unobtrusive and effective. Exactly right.

From the privileged position of 2013, over 60 years since the first performance of All My Sons, some of its concerns, as well as its stagecraft, can seem a little stiff, even archaic. But the reason it is still worth performing, still attracts audiences, is because it still relates to the themes which hooked Miller into the story which inspired it’s creation: Actions and Consequences.

This production is not without its blemishes, if you go looking for them, but they are far surpassed by its moments of splendour.

Photo – Jonathan Keenan

Runs until 26th October

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