Review

Death of a Salesman

(Left to Right) Paul Morton, Keith Thompson and Andrew Howells
Paul Morton, Keith Thompson
and Andrew Howells

It is some 20 or more years since I last saw a CoPs production and I realise that it has very much been my loss. So I would like to start by saying how very pleased and honoured I am to have been asked to review Death of a Salesman.

Over the years I have reviewed a number of shows for different companies, but I find myself in something of a quandary about this production. So much about it was so very good and yet… and yet… I do have reservations. Had I not known the play I am sure that I would have come away feeling most impressed, but I must say that I feel that the play was not sufficiently dark. It was a carefully thought out and highly intelligent production but I think that at times the actors were acting with their brains rather than with their guts. This play should make a direct emotional appeal to the audience's deepest feelings, our hearts should nearly be torn out with the power of the tragedy and I do not feel that this was completely achieved. Certainly we were engaged and disturbed by the play but it sometimes lacked that last degree of emotional depth.

Paul Morton managed this balancing act better than any other actor I have seen in the part

Having said that, I must re-emphasise that in most ways the production worked very well indeed. I was most impressed with the simplicity of the staging. So often this play is cluttered with multiple sets and elaborate lighting plots which tend to slow the action down. Here the use of very simple furniture against a static background was most effective. Stage positions and grouping were well handled and the flashbacks were subtly but clearly differentiated from the real-time action.

The idea of having the stage dominated by the looming skyscrapers was admirable, but I felt that the actual painting of the buildings was not sufficiently heavy and threatening and in consequence the general effect was rather too bright and happy. I also felt that the lighting, though sensitively handled, was often a touch too bright. It was noticeable that the final scenes were played in much lower light levels and were tremendously effective. Sound had comparatively little to do, but the simple, telling horn (was it? I am not too good on wind instruments! [Saxophone played by Keith Burnham - Ed] ) themes worked beautifully.

Cast on raked stage
Keith Thompson, Jackie Lawn, Paul Morton
and Andy Howell on the raked stage

The acting was generally of a very high standard. Some of the accents were a bit dodgy, but this does not really matter. (I once saw a production of "A View from the Bridge" in the West of Ireland in which the entire cast lost their Italian and American accents within ten minutes and reverted to broad Connemara. It was superb!)

I suppose Keith Thompson must have given a bad performance at some time or other, but somehow I seem to have missed it. As Willy he gave a very strong characterisation, carrying the action and almost dwindling before our eyes. The seed-planting scene at the end of the play was intensely moving (pace my remarks above). Another strong performance came from Jackie Lawn as Linda. I would ideally have liked to see a little more separation between the real-time and the younger Linda, but this is a minor quibble. Her portrayal of the character was most convincing and her final monologue superb.

Graham Kilner's Charley was a delight

The part of Happy may look easy, but it is not. He has to be detached and laid back - the one who has opted out - but at the same time remain involved with the family problems. He plays along with Willy's fantasies but knows full well that that is what they are. Paul Morton managed this balancing act better than any other actor I have seen in the part. As Biff, Andy Howell was very good in many ways, but I felt that he was not really physically right for the role. Biff is surely a great football playing hunk with more muscle than mind, "A one-dollar an hour man. I tried seven states and I couldn't raise it". The emotion was there and the confusion, but the performance as a whole was just a bit too cerebral. Graham Kilner's Charley was a delight. He caught the essence of this solid, reliable neighbour and shrewd companion perfectly.

Keith Thompson and Jackie Lawn as Willy and Linda Loman
Keith Thompson and Jackie Lawn
as Willy and Linda Loman

Ben is, I suspect, one of the most difficult parts in the play. Unlike the other characters he never really exists in real time. He is a ghost and the playing should have a touch of the supernatural about it. Andy Kirtley did his best with the role but I felt that his youth was against him. He really needed to be heavier both physically and emotionally. Some spooky lighting would have helped too. However his cameo portrayal as Stanley was excellent. He made a real, solid character out of this tiny part. Mark James was excellent as Bernard, but his Howard, though more than adequate, really needed more gravitas. Pippa Morton, Loretta Freeman and Emma Muir had very little to do, but did it very well.

Too sum up this was, despite some reservations, a very good, well thought-out production with a high overall standard of acting. I enjoyed the evening enormously and must congratulate the team on tackling this enthralling, difficult and demanding play.

Review: Robin Perkins
Photographs: Steve Beeston


Death of a Salesman was written by Arthur Miller and directed by Chris Janes. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2002.