DramaReviewSouth East

Death of a Salesman – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writer: Arthur Miller
Director: Abigail Graham
Reviewer: Steve Turner

Written almost 70 years ago Arthur Miller’s tale of Willy Loman remains a powerful and moving work, placing a huge demand on the lead actor.


Nicholas Woodeson as Willy takes on this demand as if born to play the role. In the blink of an eye, he switches from a supportive hopeful father to one incandescent with rage, startling the audience with his outbursts, yet evoking their compassion in the very next line.

As he trudges slowly through the auditorium, wearily climbs the steps to the stage and gradually lowers his heavy cases you are made to realise that he could be any one of us. His dreams of being “liked and you will never want” are exactly that, just dreams. Burnt out after 35 years’ service for the same company, longing for a job closer to home, he none the less can’t stop the salesman inside himself from inflating his sales figures – even to his own wife. Once she starts to calculate his commission he slowly comes clean, relates the real figures and with barely a comment she recalculates his income.

Tricia Kelly as Linda Loman is the embodiment of loyalty. She knows her husband, she loves him and trusts in him and she cares deeply for him as she can see the toll his workload is having. She cajoles him into promising to ask for a New York based role, to approach his boss to ask for an advance and to get back to a salaried role. She is the one keeping the household going, balancing all the payments required against her husband’s dwindling income. Willy agrees to all her suggestions but his mind seems elsewhere, visions of his past keep appearing to him, memories of things that were, or possibly just how he would have liked them to have been. Once Linda has gone to bed he starts to talk to himself and to other people that are in his thoughts.

His two sons Biff and Happy are both at home and wake to hear their father’s ranting. Biff the errant son, still drifting from one job to another at the age of 34 is a big disappointment to his father. Happy on the other hand has a job, an apartment, and his father’s gift of the gab, able to talk his way through any situation. George Taylor as Biff delivers a wonderful performance showing a vulnerable side to the character while steadfast throughout, never admitting to his mother or brother what the real reason for his aimlessness really is. Ben Deery as Happy has clearly bought into his father’s way of dealing with the world. Overstating his position at the company, railing against the useless people he works for, sweet talking girls in a restaurant, all of this seems to come easily to him and Deery allows just the right balance of cynicism and optimism to permeate the character.

Georgia Lowe’s set design is a sparse one, perhaps in reflection of Willy’s reduced stature, with only a table, some plastic chairs and a bed on stage and some moving panels surrounding the stage between which the cast come and go. The most eye-catching aspect of the set is the words “Land of the Free” in neon letters, and just like Willy’s life, the sign flickers and fades throughout the play. Abigail Graham’s direction, rather than update the setting has almost undated it, clearly not the 1940s of the original setting, but not of any specific time either. Taken with the bare set, the timeless setting serves to further focus the attention on the characters, and throughout the entire cast is virtually faultless.

Miller’s work ostensibly about death, is actually more a study of despair, the realisation that for Willy chasing the American dream has always been that, a chase and never a catch. He hopes his sons will succeed, always wanting and hoping for the best for them, but he begins to realise that this is not going to happen and so takes the only course of action that makes sense to him.

Superbly acted, imaginatively staged with some well-executed lighting and sound this is an excellent revival of an intense, powerful and moving play which, although quite long, moved effortlessly towards the finale thanks to the talent of all involved.

Runs until 8 July 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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