All entries for November 2008

November 16, 2008

Death of a Salesman, York Theatre Royal

This is not a dime a dozen

4 stars

With the recent election of the first black president of the USA, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman probes questions that have re-surfaced. What can an individual achieve in the almighty, supposedly free America? What is there for people who can’t succeed in this country dominated by an every-man-for-himself ethic? And what, as the character of Willy Loman asks Bernard, do you do if you simply cannot walk away from the promise of success? Damian Cruden’s emotionally taut production of Salesman explores to the full the personal stress, humiliation and aggravation that come with expectation denied and manhood undermined.

Willy Loman (played by Yorkshire actor George Costigan) is a dime-a-dozen salesman who cannot sell. He says he was once great, but we know that he and success are not acquainted. And so he fills his two sons, Biff and Happy, “so full of hot air” in his ambition for them that they are prevented from becoming their own people. Throughout Willy’s tantrums, his misogynistic rants, and his woven fictions, however, Linda Loman stands by her husband tenaciously, valuing not just the salesman, but the individual. It is probably the play of Miller’s that is most frequently performed, but because each character is so densely drawn, it begs new readings every time.

My initial impression of Costigan as an actor was that he is not old enough to play Willy Loman. Yet this, it became clear, made Willy’s plight all the more desperate. Willy is not a man who is in his dotage – he is simply one notch past his prime; one day after the Best Before date and one day before the Use By. The manager Howard’s premature firing of Willy and the young woman’s description of him as “cute” then become more acerbic because Willy’s self-perception is not yet attuned to old age. Rather, his prime emotion is outrage, and, convincingly, Costigan’s mouth constantly gapes open, his eyes pop, he blinks as if to check reality, and his jowls shake from side to side as the world seems to conspire against him.

Costigan’s superb Loman is supported by a sympathetic performance from Eileen O’Brien as his wife Linda, who possesses strength in her bird-like frame, but – in line with my quibble about age – looks too old next to Costigan. Her voice is also, at times, strangulated and her inclination to melodrama makes you feel a tad uncomfortable. As Willy gets into his car to commit suicide, his thunder is upstaged by Linda’s riproaring “Noooooo”, which sounds as if she is falling over a cliff. Nevertheless, her speeches to her sons, endorsing basic human decency, contain a force and emotional truth that compensate for her over-zealous acting in other places.

Joseph Rye makes an excellent Biff as we see his tolerance visibly being tested in facial expressions which betray a dignified resignation. Kieran Hill is enjoyably smarmy as the dimple-faced Happy, someone who wants to preserve the life-lie that simultaneously fuels Willy’s survival and provokes his death.

With Dawn Allsopp’s set, where the interiors appear to be caving inwards and different blocks slot together and double up effectively, we feel the stifling claustrophobia of Miller’s play. The characters talk of going out West, yet cannot escape the crowded apartment block, which visibly jams their lives in and forces them together. The soil in which Willy enacts his final pioneer fantasy of planting seeds, then ingeniously becomes his grave, upon which Linda lays fresh flowers (I had never spotted the poignant irony before). We realise at that point that the whole play has been Willy’s preparations for death and his need to justify his existence to himself before ending it all.

A fine production by a director who always far exceeds the expectations of regional theatre, this is one that hopefully will not be dying a death in the near future.

Carousel, New Wimbledon Theatre/Savoy

Star Quality is Bustin’ Out All Over

5 stars

Carousel is, unsurprisingly, a musical in which boy (Billy) meets girl (Julie). Within minutes, they are married and she is with child. Within the next half hour, he has killed himself and is looking down from heaven upon his sixteen-year-old daughter, Louise. If it sounds implausible, you can rest assured that, with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sublime score and Lindsay Posner’s flawless production new to the Savoy, Carousel proves itself to be the classic musical of all time – utterly believable, remarkably beautiful, and inescapably heart wrenching.

Finally, a musical has been brought to London that is fresh and of the highest quality and, at a fat £71 a ticket, at least does not leave you wondering what was the point. The choreography by Adam Cooper is among the most imaginative I’ve seen on the London stage and is sharply executed by a troupe of tight and vivacious dancers. The extended ballet sequence is particularly impressive and full of drama, as Billy watches Louise (a beautiful performance by understudy Sheila Grant) bullied by her peers. Numbers such as “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” have a joyous spontaneity that is infectious, and the use of projected scenery is stunning – the first time I’ve seen such sophisticated techniques used to enhance a production, rather than to flaunt a budget. The effects transport you to a cosmic space where we are sailed across a brooding lake and flown up through galaxies to heaven. It’s fantastic, but not flashy.

The macho Jeremiah James inhabits the part of Billy Bigelow beautifully, conveying his fragility, but also his defensiveness about his own masculinity and self-worth. He has a strut at the same time as having an air of suspicion; he seems to mistrust the world, to be baffled by how Julie can be so devoted to him, and to be confused by his own cruelty. Alexandra Silber makes a perfect Julie Jordan with a calm, feisty, but naïve, earnestness and a focused purity in her vocals that make you realise that she’s young, maybe foolish, but definitely made of steel. Understudy Tasha Sheridan provides a suitably humorous counterpoint to Silber in her role of best friend Carrie Pipperidge – delightfully squeaky and flighty as the coy wife of Enoch Snow (Alan Vicary), who is likeably snotty as Carrie’s intended. And while I am usually a sceptic when it comes to casting big names in musical theatre, Lesley Garrett is an excellent choice as the upbeat and warm-hearted Nettie. Her restrained yet passionate rendition of “When You Walk Through a Storm” is pure gold.

This is a fully realised production that avoids cliché at all costs. Julie’s reaction to Billy’s suicide is so subdued that you are only aware of the audience’s muffled sobs; Billy’s visit back to earth to give his daughter a star is so refreshingly unsentimental that you’d think he was simply walking to work. Nevertheless, the whole impact of this glittering production meant that I didn’t manage to shift the lump in my throat until well into my journey on the Piccadilly Line.

November 2008

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