Review – Death of a Salesman, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th June 2017

Death of a SalesmanThey say good things come to those who wait… Originally we had tickets to see this on 13th April, but, as you no doubt are aware gentle reader, everything was cancelled due to the sad and unexpected death of Tim Pigott-Smith, who was to play Willy Loman. I can only admire the tenacity and integrity of the cast and creative team for rescuing the production from the jaws of tragedy and creating such a brilliant phoenix to rise from the ashes of a terrible mixed metaphor on my part. The performance is dedicated to Tim Pigott-Smith, whom I only saw on stage once, ten years ago, playing Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at the Oxford Playhouse and damn good he was too.

DOAS1I’ve also only seen Death of a Salesman once before, back in 1979 at the National Theatre with Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman. I remember it like it was yesterday, and as you can imagine, Warren Mitchell was all kinds of special. But I do also remember that the production itself was a little iffy; I didn’t believe the characterisations of Biff and Happy at all, and by trying to use up all the large Lyttelton stage, it just all felt a bit thin. No such problem here, with this magnificent production by Abigail Graham, where all Willy’s hopes and aspirations, his past and present relationships with his wife and his sons, his humiliating dismissal by his boss, and his sordid little affair all take place inside a claustrophobic boxed set, which really emphasises what a little person Willy Loman is. The lights may proclaim “Land of the Free”, in homage to Willy’s pursuit of the American Dream, but they have a tendency to short-circuit and fail; and when the Lomans are finally “free” – of their biggest debt of all, the mortgage – Linda’s there to endure it on her own.

DOAS2Like many others, I read it at school; and judging from the number of (very well-behaved) students in the Royal last night, it’s not going to be leaving the syllabus any time soon. You couldn’t describe it as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece; but it’s a very fine piece of writing nonetheless and in Willy Loman he created a memorable figure of the little cog in the big wheel, who regrettably deludes himself into thinking he’s a much bigger cog. A mass of self-contradictions (“Biff is a lazy bum!” “one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy”); blind to the faults of his beloved older son (indolence, kleptomania, law-breaking); ignoring the approaches of his younger son (“I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?”); intolerant of his wife Linda’s interjections, biting the hand that feeds him, sucking up to a system that has destroyed him, and living up to the maxim that it isn’t enough to be liked, you have to be well-liked – Willy Loman is one helluva creation.

DOAS3Older son Biff, too, is a chip off the old block, although both of them would absolutely deny it. A fantasist, chasing the American Dream in his own, more lethargic way, envisioning a world where he and Hap can work together without actually having to work. Whereas Willy would go away for weeks on end selling as hard as he could, Biff would rather get up late and cross his fingers. They all want the trappings of the American Dream, but only Willy spends his life actively trying to achieve it; and largely failing, as all the HP payments on the various household items seem to be in a constant state of arrears. Happy will go along with anything so long as there are girls involved.

DOAS4If there was ever any doubt that Nicholas Woodeson’s performance as Willy would be under some kind of Tim Pigott-Smith shadow, that doubt is cleared within one nanosecond of Mr Woodeson struggling home from a terrible day at work, through the auditorium, up the stairs, and pausing before walking on to the stage. He immediately grabs our attention and doesn’t let go for the next three hours. Railing against the injustices of the world, this Willy is very realistic, very true-to-life; his flights of fancy and his excursions into reminiscence come across as the early stages of dementia. With the small enclosed set, there’s nowhere for these vivid flashbacks to go other than right in our faces, making them seem even more like reality and less like mere memories. This Willy Loman is visibly captivated by the romance of the American Dream; when his sons outline a possible plan his eyes slowly light up and widen as he grasps the hope it offers with all his mettle. When the grandeur inevitably gives way to the inconsequent, he barks his bitterness furiously like an abused dog. It’s a fantastic performance; very powerful, incredibly moving, totally pathetic (in the best meaning of the word).

DOAS5Watching George Taylor’s performance as Biff made me realise this was the first time I’d really appreciated quite how damaged the character is. He suffers mental fallout following his unfortunate dropping in on his dad and Miss Francis in a hotel in Boston in a beautifully played scene by Connie Walker, refusing to go anywhere without her new nylons, and Mr Taylor, dumbstruck into almost a coma of confusion. Mr Taylor looks like the great American hope with his football prowess and his Uni of Virginia trainers, but strip a layer of veneer away and he’s just the sad case waiting five hours at Bill Oliver’s office without hope of recognition. Mr Taylor takes you on Biff’s journey of self-realisation; you hope it’s not all self-delusion but when it so obviously is, he makes you appreciate what a straightforward no-hoper Biff is. I thought he was superb.

DOAS6Tricia Kelly’s Linda is long-suffering, optimistic, and above all, undemanding of any real attention from her husband. When he returns at the beginning of the play, she neither offers nor expects any warmth from him; yet she remains completely loyal to him throughout, in sharp contrast to his affair which we assume she never finds out about. I very much enjoyed her scenes with the sons when she finally starts to bite back at them for their thoughtlessness. Ben Deery is excellent as Happy, always the sidekick in the younger days, now the debonair smoothie setting up the girls for a night on the town. All the minor roles were very well performed, particularly the aforementioned Connie Walker, all barely concealed sexual naughtiness, and Thom Tuck as the self-centred Howard, droning on about his family voice recordings and dismissing Willy without a thought.

DOAS7A superb production – and a true testament to the idea that the show must go on. It’s halfway through its tour at the moment, with Edinburgh, Truro, Guildford and Oxford still to come. A must-see.

P. S. “So how did he die?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle as we walked home afterwards. “Well, he…” I replied, but then stopped short. I cast my mind back. Actually, how did he die? He seemed to just stop, and drop. Heart attack? Arthur Miller has him driving hell-for-leather into a crash in the goddam Studebaker, but there was none of that here. But somehow it doesn’t matter. You know Willy’s going to die from the moment you first read the first word of the title. That’s no surprise. The production takes the deliberate view that how Willy dies is the least important thing in his story. And I’m rather inclined to agree.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Hook, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th June 2015

The HookEvery so often our wonderful local theatre makes the news. One such occasion was a couple of days ago, when I got an excited phone call from Mrs Chrisparkle on her morning drive to work (hands free, naturally – the phone that is, not the steering wheel) saying “Turn Radio 4 on!” And there was the redoubtable Jim Naughtie talking about the World Premiere of an Arthur Miller play in little old Northampton. Certainly a contender for the greatest American playwright of the 20th century (Arthur Miller that is, not Jim Naughtie) – maybe even in the world – this joint production between the Royal and Derngate and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse is a major theatrical event. Who even knew Miller had written something that hadn’t yet been performed?

Would you trust these menThe programme (which I really recommend) has two very helpful articles about how the production came into existence and about Miller’s background and association with the longshoremen of New York. Miller had originally written The Hook as a screenplay and offered it to Hollywood, but they wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial bargepole unless Miller rewrote the characters to make the union members into communists. Miller refused to back down; Hollywood refused to take it – On The Waterfront appeared instead; and thus it sat, mouldering in a drawer somewhere, unloved and unproduced. Director James Dacre and designer Patrick Connellan have done extensive research over a number of years, discovering all Miller’s drafts (I’m sure that’s a euphemism for drinking Canadian beer), collating as much raw material as possible for playwright Ron Hutchinson to come up with a theatre adaptation that’s intense, hard-hitting, with a few meaty roles, and that tells a story from the heart.

MartyThat story concerns one Marty Ferrara, a decent, honourable man who works as a longshoreman in New York and who fights against what he sees as the rotten, corrupt nature of the union and the employers, who turn a blind eye to the dangerous conditions in which the men have to work, pay lip service to their rights, and are happy to rip off the men at every opportunity. Marty’s wife Terry wants him to be happy and to be true to his own integrity, but at the same time she needs him to earn money as otherwise the whole family will be destitute. Marty’s angry struggle takes him through some very bad times, including attempts made on his life, and culminates in his standing for Union president in a rigged election of which Kim Jong-un would be proud.

Longshoremen lifeWhy The Hook? Well it takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn – where Miller was born, and each of the men working on the piers has his own hook tool which he uses to help lift and move the containers they are unloading. But other hooks are also at hand. Each man is hooked, so to speak, to the docks as his only means of income, and if anything threatens that dependency, like electing a new, agitating union leader, that hook just gets stronger. In the end, Marty is rewarded with a union post, thereby masking the corruption of the election, and getting the union leader off the hook. Am I taking this too far?

Opening the safeIn the course of the play Miller addresses themes of loyalty, corruption, reward and democracy, creates some memorable dramatic moments and a credible story line. However, if I’m honest, I don’t think the character of Marty is invested with anything like the tragic hero potential of Willy Loman, Eddie Carbone or John Proctor. For one thing, he lives! He survives the play and presumably goes on to have some kind of life in the future – what kind, is up to the audience to decide. For that reason I felt it had an upbeat (if extremely sudden and slightly unrewarding) ending. Mrs C took a different view – she thought that Marty’s future would be spent achieving nothing, and therefore found the end profoundly pessimistic. Maybe that’s an observation about our own differing levels of cynicism. Or maybe it’s a neat Miller trick to confound his audience at the end.

Amazing setThe production looks and sounds stunning. Patrick Connellan’s set is extraordinary and constantly reveals new capabilities through the course of the evening. It converts from office to pier to the Ferraras’ home with effortless ease. The sharp black pinstripes of the union leader and the businessman contrast perfectly with the thin and well-worn work clothes of the stevedores. The sound design by Tom Mills is amazing; tiny effects like placing a glass on a table or ominous footsteps reverberate and echo with portentous doom to create a really claustrophobic atmosphere. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s incidental music is disconcerting and brooding.

ComradesBut I have to confess to experiencing some confusion with the plot. Attuning to the accents meant that quite a lot of the early dialogue hit my ears but never quite reached my brain (not helped by two chatterbox young ladies to my right) and identifying and understanding some of the characters and story twists happened more in retrospect than at the time. Mrs C noted that at least two of the tables in the bar during the interval had people explaining to their friends who was who and what was happening. I think that was the trouble with the chatterboxes, as they were explaining to each other what was going on. Even today in discussion Mrs C and I realised that we still hadn’t quite worked out the relationship between some of the characters and what their actual jobs were. Some of the performances in the first act were also a little on the shouty side – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – although to be fair many of the characters had plenty to shout about.

Marty and TerryThe central character of Marty is given a forceful and characterful performance by Jamie Sives, promoting the workers’ causes, a natural leader, genuinely resistant to all the pressures of corruption that surround him. There’s a particularly moving scene when one of the men is writing in the dust on the floor, adding up a sum of how much money the union has cheated from them. Marty is so infuriated with it that he physically hurls himself into the dust to erase the offending calculation. It’s an extraordinary visual depiction of his deep need to eradicate the injustice against his fellow men, and to his willingness to degrade himself if necessary to achieve it.

I don't trust themAt the other end of the societal scale there’s a splendidly villainous turn from Joe Alessi as Louis, the self-aggrandising, pocket-lining, cigar-smoking, superiority-obsessed union leader whose choices in life depend entirely on to what extent they benefit himself. Today he would be in charge of FIFA. It’s an excellent portrayal of corrupted power. There’s an electric scene between him and Sean Murray as Rocky, where the two powerful men stalk each other mentally, looking for gaps in each other’s defence, like a boxing match disguised as a business meeting. Mr Murray nicely conveys an element of decency lacking in his opponent’s character elsewhere in the play – there’s a memorable scene at the beginning where Rocky’s henchman Farragut (a suitably weaselly performance by Jem Wall) dismissively tosses a spare coin to the floor so that the men who didn’t get work that day can scrabble undignified on the pavement for it – and Rocky cuts him down to size as a reward.

EnzoThere’s also a sterling performance from Susie Trayling as Marty’s wife Theresa, downtrodden yet supportive, a voice of domestic reason, but still too insignificant to him to influence his driven need to represent the working man. I also enjoyed Paul Rattray’s earnest and eloquent performance as Enzo, Marty’s most loyal comrade (not that they’re communists, see paragraph 2) and Ewart James Walters as Darkeyes, trying to make a measly living selling trinkets and taking bets; a modern Tiresias, the blind man who sees the truth. Miller loved a bit of Greek Tragedy in his plays, you know. The ensemble is augmented by members of the local community theatre who do a grand job of creating a sense of busy crowds and a wider society. I particularly liked the way a whole bunch of men suddenly appeared out of nowhere whenever the daily work was to be allocated by the bosses.

DarkeyesSo, all in all a significant new work given a very good production, although if you’re hoping to see A View From The Bridge Mark#2 you might be a little disappointed. In the year that celebrates Arthur Miller’s centenary, this is a very welcome addition to his repertoire. After it finishes its run in Northampton on 27th June, it visits the Liverpool Everyman until 25th July. If you’re interested in the works of Miller, this is a must-see.