Review

All My Sons

This review of The Company of Players production of All My Sons in October 1998 is by Sylvia Pepper

Most of the key events in the plot of All My Sons have already happened before the play begins, so what we see on stage takes the form of the gradual uncovering of an already existing situation. This presents a challenge to the actors: the performances must be subtly layered, so that we believe in these people, not only during the early, low-key, moments of the play, but also as we gradually become aware of the burden of the secret carried by each of them. However much he tries to repress it, Joe Keller must live constantly with the knowledge of what he has done; Chris, his upright son, 'almost knows'; Ann literally brings her evidence of what really happened to Larry into the house with her when she arrives, and, most poignantly of all, Kate carries a terrible dual burden: 'Your brother's alive, darling, because if he's dead, your father killed him'.

This production was blessed with actors who, through their actions and reactions, brought the gradual revelation of the family's dark secret starkly to life. David Senton as Joe, the ordinary man pushed by his own weakness and the pressures of the situation into committing an unforgivable act, was quite outstanding. He simply inhabited the role. His portrayal of the character was fully rounded, from the carefully observed external details - the way he spoke, laughed, moved, sharpened his knife, ate an apple - to his complete understanding of what was going on inside the man. Early in the play we saw his ingenuousness and his warmth towards his family and the child, Bert. And all this subtly underpinned the power of his performance at the play's climax when he tried, with his own predicament in mind, to convince Ann that 'a father is a father' and went on to make his final, futile, attempts to justify what he had done.

Carol Monzeglio, in the part of Kate Keller, showed us both the warm and loving wife and mother she had been, and the tense, volatile creature she had become, edgily snapping the beans she was preparing and fiddling nervously with the leaves that the wind had blown from Larry's tree.

The character of Chris, Keller's surviving son is full of ambivalence, and David Maxwell succeeded in showing us a man who desperately wanted to love and respect his father but who knew, just subliminally, that this was not quite possible. His reactions to others as he watched the secrets being gradually uncovered were well conveyed, as were his own telling moments. The children of Keller's imprisoned partner were played by Shelagh Ryan, who gave us an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of Ann and Andrew Howell in the challenging role of her brother, George. This character first appears half way through the play and has, in a relatively short time, to establish firstly his determination to redeem his father's wronged reputation, and then the partial disintegration of this resolve as he is overcome by the seductiveness of his childhood attachments to the place and its people. This was a very fine performance, which handled this difficult transition most convincingly.

The neighbours all added a feeling of reality to the unfolding story, two of them making significant impressions - Ray Newton as the observant doctor whose own small tragedy made him more perceptive and tolerant about all that was happening next door, and Bert, played by William Duerdon, whose wide-eyed, unsullied innocence provided an eloquent contrast to the unfolding horrors.

The vital authenticity brought to this production by such an effective company of actors was superbly complemented by the backstage team. Miller's stage directions demand attention to detail and there was clear evidence of this in every department.

The set achieved that magic combination of looking good and being functionally effective, and was further enhanced by lighting which was both unobtrusive and attractive. (Didn't that ivy look wonderful?) The programme indicated that the largest backstage team was the one dedicated to props and set dressing, and this showed. The place looked real and lived in. The leaves scattered in the yard at the start of the play gave it the right feel and added credence to the fact that the wind had just broken Larry's tree….There is a single textual reference to Chris playing golf so there, on the porch, were the clubs, in period of course…I could go on, but these examples will have to do.

If one of the great strengths of this production was the way in which both period and location were so admirably captured, the wardrobe department must also be congratulated. The clothes, from the wonderful dresses and seamed stockings to Joe's shabby lived-in garments all added credibility, as did the carefully created hairstyles.

The music was well chosen, from the upbeat Glen Miller at the start to the more sombre notes which captured just the right mood during the tense transition between Acts Two and Three.

There is no doubt that this was a fine evening of theatre so, if I have any reservations, about what I saw, I feel I should present them tentatively:

This is a powerful play with strongly drawn characters and yours is an intimate theatre. Given this combination, might it have been interesting to experiment with doing just a bit less occasionally; with risking a little less movement or expression; with trusting the eloquence of the emotions coming from within the characters?

Having said that, I wondered if one or two moments which involved the need for real physicality were slightly too tentative. Shouldn't that slap have been delivered with more conviction, for example, or the pummelling of Joe by a totally distraught Chris? And I wonder if the tension of the George/Ann scene would have been greater if they hadn't been so far apart for most of it.

Miller asks for some garden furniture stage right, and this was often effectively used, but it did mean that when Joe was placed centre stage for an important speech, he was uncomfortably positioned when addressing people seated at the table.

The marvellously efficient stage management was notable only by its absence - except once, during the Act Two/Three transition when two figures came on to strike the glasses etc. Since this was the only time we ever saw them and since, for me, their appearance was rather distracting at a highly dramatic moment, I wondered if the glasses couldn't have been removed by one of the cast towards the end of Act Two.

Quibbles aside, this was powerful theatre. The word that keeps occurring to me when thinking about both performances and setting is 'authentic'. Miller wrote and rewrote this play, conscientiously removing anything that he considered over-theatrical, anything that detracted from its realism. I think he would have approved of the spirit of this production.

Sylvia Pepper produces plays at The Barn Theatre, and works for the University of Hertfordshire