FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Rachel Chavkin’s with Ann Yee’s tailored choreography, Chloe Lamford’s clean set exposed on both sides of an audience now at the rear of the stage, consists of a rectangular wooden O furnished with a grand piano and various chairs from living room to board. Natasha Chivers manages the tricky effect of lighting a doubly exposed set. Rosie Einlie’s costumes often notable by the way they’re tripled throughout the triple family. Composer Justin Ellington has written a score hinting at – and suddenly quoting – Gershwin. Jessica Ronane’s direction places musicians on stage, Jim Henson leading an ensemble of four.
Of all his refractions of the 1929 crash that shaped him, Arthur Miller’s The American Clock is the most direct, the most naked since his student play No Villain dating from those years. It’s also the most difficult to assimilate as Miller struggles with relating form to history: a family’s trauma mirroring the spectacle of men leaping from buildings, the later dust bowl, finally Roosevelt’s 1935 New Deal and Miller’s own communism. You can see why it took till 1980 to write it, just as Broken Glass from 1994, too fifty years. The American Clock isn’t as clean to the bone, but it resonates as much.
Subtitled ‘A Vaudeville’ it invites a delicate choreography throughout, and with Ann Yee’s beautifully tailored routines – from tap-dancing CEOs to a sudden foot-stamping dole-queue – we get that. Director Rachel Chavkin’s decision to triple the three central characters so we get white Jewish, Asian and African-American heritage triplings. It feels balletically right though dramatically blurred. Keeping to the period means the universal has to be encompassed in the particular. The text doesn’t allow say a gradual shift of period where Chavkin’s decision would have made wonderful sense. It’s a terrific idea and Miller’s vaudeville subtitle invites it. But Miller’s focused is bifurcated enough.
The family’s oddysse through dancing affluence to sudden ruins over the telephone, selling gradually everything off, to waiting for the mortgage repossession is counterpointed by hsitorical events and Brechtian takes with billboards proclaiming the year. Clarke Peters’ Robinson the man who rightly predicted the crash and took measures, narrates with a baritonal magic that almost makes you wish he told you the whole story.
But that would be a huge disservice to this terrific hard-working cast, and to the superb moments they offer. Whether it’s Clare Burt’s smiling the cracks away, as Rose 1 (the mother) aches through her avatars Amber Aga and agonizingly Rosheuvel’s Rose 3 – she doubles as an agitator – the effect is mesmerising enough. Or moments when the whole tripled family appear on stage in the same clothing. Rosheuvel’s Mrs Taylor with her acetylene agitprop blazes a torch for our own troubles and no-one watching her would feel it’s a coincidence we’re seeing this now.
There’s fine work too from the three Lees – Miller’s own persona the privileged boy who acquires and loses a bike then moves to communism: Fred Haig holds the stage a while, we see Taheen Modak a more streetwise self finally morph to Jyuddah James – each becoming a college friend prophesying all kinds of America. James Garnon’s Moe translates slowly to a more crumped self strikingly in Abhin Galeya and achingly Sule Rimi who has to bum off his own son.
The most vivid performance of all is Francesca Mills, with her tendency to raise the temperature of any stage she’s on. whether an heiress or secretary (with a door slammed in her face just like last yeer in Barry Rutter’s Globe Two Noble Kinsman) or Diana who gets a composer boyfriend (Fred Haig’s Sidney) as an arranged marriage that somehow works out, Mills lights up everything, particularly the frenetic dancing. Indeed one of the great routines is a continual ripple of those dance marathons pitched to cruelty and spectacle as couples dance themselves almost to death for a few cents.
There’s powerful scenes, not just those initial plummets, but the dust bowl confrontations between a mortgage reposseser and local famers who force him at gunpoint to sell back the farm to the famer who then murmurs ‘I feel like I’ve stolen my own farm.’ And Evan Wardrop’s CEO who tells Robinson that he’s resigning moments after taking charge of General Electric. ‘All the bg companies swallow the little ones…’ he sees that small independents with straight-talking CEOs transform into evasive yes-men. He tap-dances out of history to Robinson’s bemused understanding.
But there’s no doubt that Abdul Salis’ café proprietor put upon by the local corrupt sheriff brings the key moment. He tells the inquiring Lee that ‘The main thing about the Depression is that it finally hit the white people.’
Chloe Lamford’s clean set exposed on both sides of an audience now at the rear of the stage, consists of a rectangular wooden O furnished with a grand piano and various chairs from living room to board to bare prairie and Tennessee diner, expressed minimally. Most striking are the Wall Street shares boards on each side complete with ladders, where water trickles and obliterates the chalked indexes. Natasha Chivers manages the tricky effect of lighting a doubly exposed set. Rosie Einlie’s costumes often notable by the way they’re tripled throughout the triple family: a striking saffron dress, the reach-me-down blue check short, the 1930s garb steadily darkening. Composer Justin Ellington has written a score hinting at – and suddenly quoting – Gershwin, as if some great tune was about to be uttered: gloriously it sometimes is. Jessica Ronane’s direction places musicians on stage, Jim Henson leading an ensemble of four.
Conceptual quibbles aside, this exhilarates for most of its two hours fifty minutes. There are occasional drops in energy towards the end, but even this production, so breathlessly vivid, needs to take a breath.
With several Miller revivals – Jonathan church’s The Price, the Old Vic’s upcoming All My Sons – we can see The America Clock mightn’t be among the greatest Miller paly, but it’s one of those that grows with each attempt to get it – and Miller right. With such rare outings, it’s imperative to see this production.