sat 20/07/2024

All My Sons, Apollo Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

All My Sons, Apollo Theatre

All My Sons, Apollo Theatre

Zoe Wanamaker touches the heart in a moral fable about the sickness of self-deception

David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker as the parents: both soaked in their own pretend worldsPhotographs by Nobby Clark

A young Arthur Miller wrote this highly moralistic, redemption-seeking play soon after the Second World War, a parable about an older generation’s dubious pragmatic principles versus the bewildered idealism of their children who were Miller’s generation, the soldiers’ generation.

The deathlessness of its message about faulty army equipment, young military casualties and the no-blame culture may be quite as much a reason for this new revival of Howard Davies's 2000 National Theatre production, now with David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker.

If I find Miller's effects over-calculated, they were not so for the fairly young first-night audience last night who stood in ovation and will ensure a second big hit run for this production. Maybe that’s a deathless message of its own.

allmysons_Rooper_Suchet_CampbellMoore_Wanamaker_NobbyClarkStarting gently in the garden of a picturesque wooden American country house with tea on the table and grass underfoot, designer William Dudley and lightsman Mark Henderson lay out a serene domestic scene just waiting for bombs to drop into it. Miller started All My Sons in the war and spent more than two years on it, after failing with his first play, and it feels like it, every strand wound super-carefully into position, every character cut to fit the jigsaw. The father-figure, Joe Keller, made plane parts for the US Airforce in his factory in the war, but his partner was on duty the day the factory sent out a batch of cylinder heads known to be faulty - and 21 pilots were killed in the consequent crashes. The partner went to jail, Keller was exonerated, but the fact that the community still finds him suspect - despite his commendable business success - is allowed to hang like a crack in the ceiling dripping blood on everything he has.

Keller had two sons, but one went missing three years earlier - his mother refuses to think he is dead, and when her younger son Chris wants to marry his brother’s girlfriend, who has accepted that Larry is dead, she wants to throw them both out. The girlfriend is the daughter of the jailed partner, and hence the guilt of the father is visited upon her just as much as it lies upon Chris. By the end of the play the kids will tell truths and think they are doing right; the older ones will be made to expose their self-deceptions and face consequences.

allmysons_Wanamaker._NobbyClarkDavies swathes this sternly delineated tragedy-in-waiting with naturalism. The first half has a jocular atmosphere, as neighbours fluff up the edges with drawing-room comedy lines, but we are led to see that the mother is now physically ill with her loss. In Zoë Wanamaker’s extraordinary, edgy, complex performance Kate Keller is a real worried Jewish mama with her pepper-and-salt curls, her apron and her concern that people eat more. Wanamaker somehow suggests the presence of the Holocaust in her mental make-up, a backstory of cousins, perhaps, family who stayed behind in Europe when she and her parents long ago emigrated to the US. Kate is the best-drawn character, a good, scared woman who is sure that safety in life is about clinging on to pretences and not examining guilt too much. By believing that her elder son, a pilot, is only missing, she also contrives to deny to herself the instincts she’s burying about her husband, because only by that piece of pretence can her family stability, the business, the house, security, order, survive.

It’s a practical solution for her, and one that her younger son Chris will condemn in an impassioned speech aimed at his father, and his father’s generation, for being “practical”. For Chris, “practical” means morally evasive, as in capitalism-at-any-cost. The speech is true to his age, and probably indeed that era of the late Forties, and Stephen Campbell Moore plays him as soft-faced, shy and awkward, and so the speech fits that too. However what doesn’t fit is the jarring line about his character that Miller plants like a nettle in the border, where his mother says at one point that “they say in the war Chris was supposed to be a killer, here he’s afraid of mice”. This is one of several lines that feel planted in the text, and I give Davies every credit for trying to ignore a few of them in the interests of saving Miller from his own overcomplications.

Welcome echoes of Suchet’s TV performance as Robert Maxwell hang about his Joe Keller: the affable smile that suddenly turns flinty, and the way his soft round little body can crumple like a brown paper bag one moment and freeze in watchful attention the next. His American accent wanders, and an East European tang would help, because there is something of the long-distance animal survivor about how he looks, and his excuses for his behaviour - “I’m in business... I’m a man... I did it for you...” and his repeated blaming of “them” and “they”. There are and were many righteous parents blaming their children for their own bad decisions (and indeed political leaders blaming their subordinates for faulty army supplies), but Suchet isn’t one of the Gambons of this world and doesn’t quite carry off the contemptibility of this particular one.

It's not all his fault, though. All My Sons drives its points forcibly but it is a formulaic equation, a moral fable that wants to sort us out, rather than a genuinely curious study of character. Every praise is due to Wanamaker for her subtlety, and to the touching and intelligent playing of the girlfriend Annie by Jemima Rooper. Still, for all their spontaneity and all Davies's directorial warmth, to me this remains a master-class in dramatic devices rather than a dramatic masterpiece.

Davies swathes this sternly delineated tragedy-in-waiting with naturalism

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