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FringeReview UK 2019

All My Sons

Old Vic Headlong Co-Production

Genre: American Theater, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Old Vic via National Theatre NT Live


Low Down

Jeremy Herrin’s Old Vic Headlong Co-Production features Max Jones’ meticulous set, the backyard of a weather-boarded detached house with porch also details a solidity that admits Richard Howell’s light. Starting naturalistic it grows more expressionist. Carolyn Downing’s sound too owns stranger moments.

Ross MacGibbon’s screen direction pans in shadowy detailed moments like a film, occasionally panning from the gods, but for the most part level with the actors, intercutting occasionally and framing every moment. Christopher C Bretnall’s technical production includes further lighting balance from Bernie Davis and sound from Conrad Fletcher, and script supervision with Claire Mathias.


For a play that with patient remorseless logic peels back guilt and responsibility, it’s strange to see how many portents Miller visits on his first masterpiece, the 1947 All My Sons.


The broken apple tree, the hapless Frank Lubey bearing a horoscope proving how a missing elder son of the Keller household, Larry, can’t have crashed and not survived. One of the tiny (if crucial) cuts from this marvellously full production of 2 hours 35 minutes references Jupiter rising as denoting ‘a fortunate day’. Frank reads that as a day to marry on. In fact Jupiter’s about judgment, and justice. It grinds with exceeding fineness here, and it’s hypnotic.


Following two West End Miller productions this year (and second from the Old Vic) and preceding another, it’s as if Miller’s compass is the only route out of fake news, juddering relevance and terminal relativism. This one find two U.S. stars blending seamlessly with a mainly British cast.


Jeremy Herrin’s Old Vic Headlong Co-Production lets everything breathe: crucially everything lands, or rather crashes. Max Jones’ meticulous set, the backyard of a weather-boarded detached house with porch details a depth of lawn featuring summer house and chairs outside, with a solidity that admits Richard Howell’s light. Starting naturalistic it grows more lunar caustic and expressionist through the night. Carolyn Downing’s sound too owns stranger moments, taking a line from the dialogue the sound of a stone dropped in water suddenly plops deep stage right. Other sounds haunt like snags on serrated edges.


Kate Keller’s wrenchingly pleased with that chart: she never believed Larry was dead and here comes daffy Frank (Gunnar Cauthery) casting his star turn horoscope for her: Larry must be alive. Sally Field gives a masterclass in rearguard self-deception: Larry’s one-time fiancée Ann Deever and her second son Chris shouldn’t get together or it kills Larry. Even if she has been waiting – just a bit improbably – three years.


Crucially too war veteran Chris shouldn’t learn what we find Kate and Joe know all along. Two impulses are intertwined at the deepest level. Field’s approach to them is to create organic tension: her warmth is a deflection too. Chris invites Ann to stay. Kate will have none of it. She and Joe know what it brings.


Ann like her lawyer brother George has disowned their father. Joe’s ex-partner was convicted for allowing cracked cylinder heads to be sent to an importunate army procurement. Twenty-one P40 pilots died and though Joe was briefly jailed it’s his partner who languishes there. That’s about to change.


Ann’s moved on, determined to take Chris with her. Radiant and more than ready, Jenna Coleman keeps that always at the forefront of her performance. Though all along she holds Larry’s own judgement secretly like a reluctant nuclear option; though not certain yet of its truth. You can see that option wrenched out of her. Coleman shows Ann’s determination that Kate gives Chris back.


Field holds off death and guilt with both hands – but like Samson shaking two pillars – only collapsing when she forces Ann’s hand. The adamant behind Joe’s beacon of industry, Field melts even judgmental George into sitting and drinking.


Colin Morgan exudes a quivering displaced tension as idealistic Chris, a second son living in the shadow of family and brother, who Ann has to cajole to kiss. Army-quick to respond only when doubt’s extinguished, still ghosted by the company that died under him, Morgan doesn’t flinch from making Chris obnoxious to George when challenged. Chris despite his war experiences still believes.


Bill Pullman’s performance as Joe Keller brings out something slightly over-emphasized in Joe’s mind, a compensatory blather leading to fatal hubristic overreach – claiming 15 years without illness. Pullman calibrates Joe’s watchful overkill: either he’s putting down Chris or telling him he can sign ‘and Son’ on the family business. Is it an intuitive self-betrayal in Chris that he doesn’t want to?


Pullman nails too an avuncular but doting paterfamilias whose conflicted family values and self-deception crumble into the realisation the pilots were ‘all my sons’. Self-knowledge strips back from his eyelids. It’s a devastating, unflinching moment; Pullman rises to it with anguish and lamenting. In this he’s unlike David Suchet’s more demonstrative, slightly dangerous Joe in the last (2010) West End revival with Zoe Wanamaker. Pullman’s Joe is full of contained force that calculates.


There’s lateral wisdom from the couple who bought the Deever house next door, more than they at first let on. Idealistic doctor Jim Bayliss Sule Rimi is visibly deflated in the presence of his pragmatic former-nurse wife Sue. Kayla Meikle gives a vixenish mumsy snarl when she rounds on Ann. Chris’s idealism poisons her husband. Marry Chris and never come back. Ann defies auguries. Rimi relates sunken dreams: his wife fetches him back from two penurious months of blissful research living on banana and milk. ‘I’m even forgetting the man I thought I wanted to be.’


It’s Kate who highlights a marriage which should have been, Lydia Lubey already with three children by Frank should have married George, but he left for war whilst Frank was just too old, and when Oliver Johnstone’s George arrives a prematurely embittered lawyer, a touching colloquy with Lydia edges his loss. Bessie Carter’s warm intelligent Lydia shows George what he – and she – have lost. The way Carter momentarily lightens into joy at seeing George is heart-stopping. One more casualty of events


Johnstone shrink-fits into his father’s hat: the tremulous fragile George only rages whilst outside Kate’s embrace; he visibly shudders within it calling the place home.


But what he’s discovered mines the denouement as Chris crumbles with knowledge. Jim Bayliss talks of the light of a man’s truth going out as it is now with Chris, already has with him. That however, isn’t the most devastating discovery. Crucially too Miller lets this emerge at the end of Act Two, so it has time to play out, the neighbourhood affirming they knew all along.


Cauthery’s hapless Frank whose laboured horoscope unwittingly gets it right is a study in people-pleasing and a desire to make things somehow right. The innocent counterpart of Chris, his delusion is different only perhaps in shrunken awareness. Yet he’s a winner.


There’s an enchantingly blocked whoop of a turn from Archie Barnes as child Bert.


As in all fine productions the ending takes the audience by a gasp of surprise; afterwards the way many stay in their seats longer than normal is testament to this production’s power. But it’s the animal moan from Chris, the way Kate enfolds him and the way Ann stays frozen that lends the epilogue a new tragic depth. This production convinces you All My Sons is even greater than we know. The stone dropped casts ripples: the obvious isn’t the less potent for that.