The last time that the Royal Exchange revived an Arthur Miller play was with Sarah Frankcom’s extraordinarily powerful production of A View From A Bridge, which featured an astonishing performance from Con O’Neill likely to live long in the minds of all who saw it.
No pressure then, for Michael Buffong’s Tawala Theatre as he directs an all-black cast in the play that secured Miller’s reputation. Buffong states in the programme notes that’s there’s no deep subtext here concerning the racial make-up of the cast – the power of the play and the story it tells is transcendent.
In All My Sons the Keller family patriarch, Joe, has settled into contented retirement. Son Larry is missing in action, and while Joe’s wife Kate believes that Larry is still alive, the rest of the family want her to move on, not least brother Chris, who’s planning on marrying Larry’s former girlfriend Ann. There’s also a ticking time bomb sitting under this family: Joe, many years ago, let his business partner take the blame and go to jail for an error at his factory which resulted in the deaths of 21 air pilots.
Buffong lets this pressure build up gradually during the first half, taking its time, adding layers, as the audience slowly come to understand the circumstances which will lead this family to implode. Although the pace drags in parts, it makes the revelations that come during the third act even more powerful. Don Warrington plays Joe as a fundamentally decent, yet fatally flawed, man, avuncular and warm, which makes his panicked unravelling all the more painful to watch. From a superb supporting cast Doña Croll particularly powerful as Jim’s wife Kate and Chike Okonokwo brings a quiet dignity to the role of Chris, a man who effectively falls apart when he discovers his father’s secret; Kemi-Bo Jacobs is also an engaging presence as his sweetheart, Kate. At times, the Buffong’s production can feel cluttered, with various friends and neighbours wandering around to no real effect, but this never detracts from the potency of the narrative.
As is often the case with a British cast playing American characters, accent is an issue and some of them are rather wobbly; audibility – or rather the lack of it – is also a problem, the in-the-round staging swallowing some of the dialogue. But Ellen Cairns’ set design is beautiful in its use of detail, it has a transporting quality, placing the audience in the Kellers’ backyard.
All My Sons is a play which wears its influences – Greek tragedy and Ibsen – proudly, and it’s narrative arc, the flawed man undone by his actions echoes through contemporary work like brilliant Breaking Bad. Buffong and his cast have here distilled the enormous power of Miller’s text, it’s still a play with the power to shock and unsettle, the climatic moments of the final act testament to this, drawing audible sobs and gasps from the audience.