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Posts Tagged ‘Penny Downie’

The first Arthur Miller play I saw was Death of a Salesman, in Bristol, in a National Theatre touring production featuring Warren Mitchell, directed by Michael Rudman. It played a big part in my addiction to Miller and indeed theatre in general. Now here I am more than 35 years later seeing Rudman’s terrific revival of All My Sons in Kingston. It was like intravenous theatrical re-energising fluid. 

This was Miller’s third play, the first as a professional writer and his first hit. Every time I see it, it feels current and today the themes of business ethics and morals are as relevant as ever, if not more so. There’s a line where someone responds to a suggestion they’ve deceived for gain, to which they respond along the lines of how that makes them clever. Trump used that line in the first presidential debate a few weeks back without even knowing it.

The Keller family are stalwarts of the community, with a successful manufacturing business and one of those homes the neighbourhood revolves around, everyone forever popping in. Both of their sons fought in the Second World War but only one came back, though his mother won’t accept that her son is dead. During the war the factory produced aircraft parts and when a faulty batch results in deaths both business partners are arrested. Keller is eventually freed and partner Deever takes the rap. Youngest Keller son Chris now wants to marry Anne Deever who has disowned her father, but Chris’ mother won’t have it. Anne’s brother George turns up. He too had disowned his father but after a reluctant visit to see him in prison he makes revelations that start a chain reaction that brings the world of the Keller’s tumbling down. It unfolds like a Greek tragedy, it grips throughout and its conclusion is devastating.

Designer Michael Taylor has solved the Rose Theatre’s problem of a lack of intimacy for this kind of drama by bringing the stage forward to house the Keller’s garden, where the whole play takes place, and building a three-story wooden house with patio behind it, with high level trees coming out of the theatre’s back wall; it’s a superb design. It’s also a superb cast, with David Horovitch as Joe Keller, living with his lies, wracked with guilt, and Penny Downie as his wife Kate, in denial, still grieving three years on. I was hugely impressed by Alex Waldmann as son Chris and Francesca Zoutewelle as his intended Ann, and in an excellent supporting cast there’s a great performance from Edward Harrison as her brother George. Rudman’s direction is impeccable.

This is my fifth production of this play and it’s as good as any. World class theatre in Kingston. Go!

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This David Lindsay-Abaire play pre-dates Good People, his 2014 hit here in the UK, which also started in Hampstead before transferring to the West End. Though it has some similarities, it’s a fundamentally different play, more gentle and sensitive. I liked it.

Howie and Becca are trying to come to terms with their personal tragedy, the loss of a four-year-old son, each in very different ways. Howie joins a support group whilst Becca copes alone. He likes reminders but she wants them removed. Lindsay-Abaire introduces his class theme again, with Becca’s sister Izzy and mom Nat coming from a very different part of suburban New York. The family has suffered unexpected loss before, though Nat and Becca see that very differently too. Izzy announces her pregnancy, adding another car to the emotional roller-coaster.

The play explores the differing responses to grief, starting after eight months, moving forward a few more. It’s a very delicate play, not without humour, but much gentler humour than the acerbic kind in Good People. With the audience wrapped around an unelevated stage, Hampstead Theatre seems more intimate, very much in keeping with the piece. Ashley Martin-Davies set manages to contain four rooms without seeming in any way cramped, with plenty of space in the main playing area. Edward Hall’s staging is empathetic, as sensitive as the material and indeed the performances. 

Tom Goodman-Hill and Clare Skinner beautifully convey the strain events place on their relationship. Georgina Rich brings Izzy a down-to-earth plain-speaking warmth and Penny Downie gives a nuanced performance as mother Nat, who has complex relationships with her daughters as well as the ghost of her dead son. Sean Delaney has an impact much bigger than the role of Jason, the young man involved in son Danny’s death, himself trying to come to terms with it all.

The play wasn’t at all what I was expecting after Good People, which is good as it proves Lindsay-Abaire has both breadth and depth. This one is very much its own play, well structured and well written and, like the other, every moment matters. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking evening.

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Gosh, what a dull and frustrating evening this is.

Simon Gray’s 40-year old play really has only one character; the rest are mere foils. The trouble is, this character has few redeeming features. He’s self-obsessed, misogynistic and contemptuous of all around him. He’s sexist, homophobic and just a little bit racist. Given that he is a university lecturer, written by Gray at the time he was also a university lecturer, some think it’s autobiographical – if that’s true, Gray must really have hated himself.

In one day, Butley learnes that his wife is leaving him for another man, his protege / colleague / flatmate is moving out of both office and home and his alleged ‘poaching’ of a student whilst drunk has caused a rift with another colleague. He smokes, drinks and snipes at everyone and everything. It’s clear why this is all happening to him – who’d want to be married to / live with / work with this man? – and you have no sympathy, just loathing. 2.5 hours in this man’s company seems like a sentence.

Dominic West is an excellent actor and he gives the role his all. The talents of other excellent actors like Paul McGann, Penny Downie and Amanda Drew are wasted on paper thin supporting roles. Peter McKintosh has created a realisitc university office with the wall of books on Butley’s side of the office looking like it will collapse any minute. There’s really nothing wrong with the production except that everyone’s talents are wasted on a terrible play. The only reason I can think of for going to see it is to see how much we’ve moved on in 40 years – but you can do that by watching one episode of Ashes to Ashes.

Avoid!

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