All My Sons: Wounds Without a Hope of Healing

Saturday 1st June 2019 at the Old Vic Theatre, London.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

There isn’t very long left to catch the Old Vic’s production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons which closes June 8th. The play features a stellar starry cast including Sally Field and Bill Pullman at the helm and offers an intensely melancholy tale of a family suffering losses of various forms in post-war US. In true Miller style, the emphasis is on the humanity and the pain, looking outwards at the widespread aftermath of war and inwards to internal, private wars being waged within family units.

The Keller family would seem to have a pretty good life from the set-up. They have a pretty suburban home, nice neighbours and at least one returning son where other families have none. But there are frictions bubbling beneath the surface and the whole family is only ever limply masking those tensions. Field and Pullman are Joe and Kate Keller, joined by their put upon son Chris, played by Colin Morgan. Two thirds of this fractured family are working hard to heal and move on but for every step forward they take, the final third of the family, Kate, claws them back towards unresolved troubles and pains in a desperate bid to cling to hope.

Field is a tender dark cloud and intensely tragic as the mother single-handedly keeping her son alive in any way she can, looking for signs of comfort and reassurance in all things to convince herself and those around her that there is yet hope for the wholesome happy ending. Pullman does a wonderful job as the father torn between appeasing a sensitive and deeply wounded wife and supporting his son who wants more than anything to start living for the future. His take on the darker side of Joe isn’t quite so convincing as the pained, cajoling side however.

Miller points emphatically to the post-war and familial suffering of the young in All My Sons. Aside from those lost to warfare, many other young lives full of promise have been lost to the limbo of waiting for a sweetheart to return or to family tragedies and secrets generation to generation. Here, we’re presented with something of a study of three youngsters who each face the challenge of digesting and living with dark truths.

Chris Keller is a complex character in whom Morgan skilfully crafts a combination of boyish charm and enthusiasm paired with conflicting feelings of duty and desire for a better future. When the story moves towards a grim conclusion, Chris shifts anew to a much harder character while simultaneously becoming more vulnerable than ever.

George Deever (Oliver Johnstone) re-appears on the scene just in time to scupper potential happiness in the name of loyalty and a passionate inner rage built from the bones of past wrongs. Yet the most surprising representative of the up and coming generation is found in the deceptively amiably quiet Ann (Jenna Coleman). In Ann we are shown the true depth and breadth of challenge faced and while the parental figures wear their pains openly upon their features, the children are increasingly more adept at withholding.

It’s not just in the Keller family that secrets and drama lie. Neighbours Dr Jim Bayliss (Sule Rimi) and wife Sue (played with warmth and some great comic flair by Kayla Meikle) know more than they let on and Sue in particular adds a surprising layer to the unfolding narrative. In Frank (Gunnar Cauthery) and Lydia (Bessie Carter) we are given the breezy and efficient marriage which like all else in this play, isn’t exactly what it seems on the surface and Miller shows us how hollow pristine images of the American Dream can be. The pure and comically earnest youngster Bert (Hari Coles) lightens the tone nicely when needed and Coles’ appearances are welcome relief from the prominent sense of static energy on stage.

All My Sons is an intriguing yet static play. Director Jeremy Herrin has the cast use the full space but individual scenes tend to sit in individual nooks which isn’t always the most engaging approach, especially from the vantage point of the Dress Circle. In the same way, lighting from Richard Howell certainly captures the brooding nature of much of the narrative but on a few too many occasions, faces and crucial reactions are lost to dim light or shadows, bringing me back to my old gripe of dramas needing to be staged with more emphasis on the entire auditorium in mind, not just the central stalls. 

Aside from the very capable cast, the most impressive element of the production is Max Jones’ brilliant set which makes a grand and politically charged entrance thanks to Duncan McLean’s video design. I only wish the production had adopted some more of this high impact style across the rest of the play as it would have given the piece some needed visual variety to keep those precariously distant from the action like me engaged when facial expressions and the delicate details of the scenes aren’t easily accessible. 

Although it is not necessarily the most beautifully written play, All My Sons is filled with unflinching realism and characters experiencing deeply complex troubles. It’s a story which remains relevant and necessary; for as long as there are wars, there will be families and sweethearts left in limbo and for as long as families can fall prey to the consequences of one member’s actions, individuals will find themselves the unwitting victims of their loved ones. Such subject matter will ensure continued longevity and here an accomplished cast deliver Miller’s stark socio-political commentary with clarity.

All My Sons plays at the Old Vic until June 8th 2019 and you can find tickets (if you’re lucky) here.

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