DramaNorth WestReview

Death Of A Salesman – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Writer: Arthur Miller

Director: Sarah Frankcom

Reviewer: Jo Beggs

If Willy Loman were living in America in 2018 he wouldn’t seem out of place. A salesman whose thirty odd years of service to capitalism has left him with nothing but a zero-hours contract and no health insurance to deal with an escalating mental health problem. He’d probably be starting to wonder why he voted for Trump, the vision of the self-made, hard-working man that Loman himself aspires to be.

For Director Sarah Frankcom draws on all the flaws Miller imbued Loman with and Don Warrington throws in a few more in his intense performance. There’s no real attempt to win over the audience with charm or respectability. From the moment we encounter Loman he’s a pretty unlikeable character, something which seems to have rubbed off on the rest of the family. Oldest son Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) is fixing for a fight at any given moment, his younger brother Happy (Buom Tihngang) thinks of little else other than which girlfriend he’s spending the night with. In their thirties, these two are still behaving like teenagers. Given that Biff has had an almighty strop every time his underachievement has been raised in the past, nobody now dares say a word. So there’s something of a stalemate in the Loman household, and a tension that is definitely going to give.

The first act sets this tension well, but it’s hard to sustain it in this lengthy play, and what starts out as a rumbling hostility becomes rather bleak and soulless as things move on. The stripping of any positive character traits amongst the Loman’s makes them all pretty difficult to like – and it’s increasingly hard to care about what happens to any of them. The supporting cast of characters – never particularly three-dimensional in any production of this play – are even less so here, at times seeming like an almost pointless addition. Where they are perhaps strongest is as the voices in Willy Loman’s head (Uncle Ben’s hollow promises, Willy’s lover’s taunting laughter) which are delivered from the darkness at the edge of the circular stage.

Played out on a bleakly bare set (Leslie Travers), the space is well used, creating a claustrophobic and hostile arena that contains the action and allows for frustrated circular pacing, as well as seamless set changes. Jack Knowles’s lighting design creates some lovely moments of warmth against this desolate backdrop, and creates a menacing storm, lighting up the heavy foliage of low hanging trees above the stage.

Whether Willy Loman’s deteriorating mental health is drawn out particularly strongly in this production, or if it’s a sign of the times that we are more sensitive to the issues this harrowing play raises, it’s hard to tell. Certainly, Don Warrington’s Loman is more tortured than many. His physicality is that of a man fighting to keep putting one foot in front of the other, ever fearful of letting people down, whilst always knowing he will. In the restaurant scene when the waiter has to pick him up off the floor, it’s probably the one moment when you really feel for him, the moment when you know he’s truly broken.

There are solid supporting performances from Ashley Zhangazha and Buom Tihngang as the Loman brothers. They’re convincingly conflicted – experienced in life’s challenges while immature in their actions – and believable as siblings who’ve needed to stick together. Zhangazha is particularly good when Biff is in his most petulant moods.

Death Of A Salesman is not Frankcom’s finest moment, but she does seem to be saying something different with this production, and that’s no mean feat for such a well-worn play. The unpleasantly loud and repetitive drum solo soundtrack at the start sets you up for something that’s not going to be an easy experience. Buckle up.

Runs until 17 November 2018 | Image: Johann Persson

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The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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