All My Sons review: ‘intelligent’

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If summative season is getting you down and you’re in need of a reality check, or just a healthy dose of Schadenfreude, then you can’t go far wrong with Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Miller’s families are never allowed to remain happy for long, and the ill-fated Kellers, whose son Larry is still missing in action in the years after the Second World War, are no exception. Phoenix Theatre Company’s exploration of what happens when long-buried secrets resurface was intelligent and subtle, if perhaps a little rough around the edges.

By my own admission, I am a stickler for enunciation, which I know makes me sound prudish and old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like poor diction and erratic accents to leave an audience scratching their heads in confusion. Whilst this production did boast some actors with a good understanding of Fountains Hall’s acoustics and strong and committed accents, there were unfortunately several instances where I either had to strain to hear what was going on or was left completely in the dark. This became particularly problematic during the second act. What should have been a shocking denouement fell flat, and this was extraordinarily frustrating primarily because I could easily read the emotions of anger and pain on the actors’ faces, but needed to be able to hear what they were saying in order to fully register the impact of the scene itself, and the scenes following it.

Stage craft also needed a little polishing; there were a few instances of lines being delivered into the wings or to the back of the stage which didn’t help with the prevailing projection issues. Whilst Fountains is a more intimate venue than, say, the Assembly Rooms, it is still a traditional proscenium arch space and needs to be treated as such – a normal speaking voice just won’t carry.

However, traditional space though it may be, the technical wizardry in evidence here deserves a huge amount of commendation. I was extremely impressed with the atmosphere of suburban domesticity that director Nicki Orrell, tech director Andy Ball and the tech and stage team have managed to create. Moving the action further forward into the auditorium near enough totally subverted any issues which might have been created by the deep stage and also gave the production a much more intrusive, false-cosy feel which proved to be surprisingly unnerving as the play drew to its grim conclusion. The aesthetics of the production are one of its strongest features; costumes in particular show lovely attention to period detail.

Elements of Greek tragedy are palpable in All My Sons and to Orrell’s credit the production never felt indulgently melodramatic or hysterical, as it easily could have done. However, I do feel that the overall tone was slightly insipid and it would have been lovely to sense a little more emotional gravitas. There were times when I didn’t feel like the actors were truly committing to their characters’ complex emotions and motivations; reactions to some of the more shocking exchanges sometimes felt a little under-acted, a bit too subtle for their own good. The sense of everyday domesticity was communicated well but I would have liked more tension and brittleness. First night nerves and the odd line stumble may have played a part here,there was a fair amount of nervous shuffling and a sense that some actors were not quite settling into their characters.

That said, the acting is generally strong across the board and the lead actors in particular are impressive. Wilf Wort, clocking up his sixth performance this term, is on excellent form as always – fabulously rickety, earnest and sweet-natured, which makes his final tortured scenes with son Chris (Zac Tiplady) particularly poignant. I feel that both Tiplady and Wort can possibly push those final scenes to more emotional heights, but both deliver strong performances regardless.

Dixi Taylor, as Kate Keller, does a wonderful job of communicating Kate’s weariness and short emotional fuse, the sense that she is slowly but inexorably moving towards a total breakdown, but again I think there is potential to push the emotionally explosive scenes further. I feel that all the actors can afford to take a little bit more time to really process their characters’ thoughts – everything happened at such breakneck speed that the shocks didn’t have enough time to register, giving the action, particularly in the second half, a slightly rushed and perfunctory feel. This was a real shame in such a short play, with ample time to linger over the dramatic high-points of the piece.

There is a lot of potential in All My Sons, and I feel that once the actors settle into their run a lot of the more pressing issues I had with Tuesday’s performance will be easily ironed out. A little more energy and confidence, and bearing in mind that, for each character, this is the first time they have heard and said these words, will work wonders in creating a more dynamic and taut production, ensuring that the devastating conclusion retains its shock factor and that, despite pretensions to the contrary, the audience is never quite allowed to believe the facade of homeliness.

Photograph: Anna Lermolaieva

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