3 November 2016

All My Sons at Rose Theatre was a triumph


I always use the Swarm app (formerly FourSquare) to check in to cultural venues that I go to as I like to keep track of when I was last at a place and how often I've been there. This evening my phone informed me that I had been to the Rose Theatre (since getting an iPhone) forty times. This was one of the very best of those forty evenings.

I am keen to support Rose Theatre as much as I can and so I need an excuse not to see something rather than to see it. Normally the best excuse Rose gives me for missing something is failing to tell me about it in time but that did not happen with All My Sons and I was able to get a seat in my preferred area on one of my preferred days, A42 which cost me £36.

If I had need an excuse to see All My Sons then the name Arthur Miller would have been good enough.

I went knowing nothing about the play and so I sat down in my seat, with a pint of Black Sheep Bitter, keen to learn. We were in the garden of a decent American house just after the last World War, and there we stayed.

The main players were the occupiers of the house, Joe and Kate Keller and their thirty-something son Chris. Joining them in the garden were Ann, a young friend of the family who had recently returned after a year away, two neighbouring couples and the memory of their other son, Larry, who went missing a few years ago during the war.

Larry's absence, or death, was the opening theme of the play with a tree planted in his honour having been blown down in the night and Chris trying to persuade Ann to help him to convince his mother that Larry was not just missing and was not coming home.

The other talk was general catching up with Ann on things that had happened in the last year or so and some thoughts about the future. It was not far off being a typical relaxed and meaningless discussion between family and friends. There were a few hints of resentment and disdain but, as I said, it was a typical discussion between people who knew each other well.

Then the word "murderer" was dropped like a bombshell.

The theme of the play suddenly changed to an incident in Joe Keller's past where, as the owner of a munitions factory, he had allowed some faulty parts to be shipped and these had led to the deaths of twenty odd American servicemen. He had been found to not be directly responsible and had been released after a trial while an engineer, Ann's father, had gone to prison, and was still there.

To complicate things further, Ann had been in a relationship with Larry and was now planning to marry Chris (nobody had told Kate). Then there was Ann's brother George who was still angry at his father's imprisonment and blamed Joe for this.

The main story came to dominate the play and there were more bombshells to shunt the story forward, including a letter from Larry to Ann and a defining decision from Joe. It was a strong and gripping plot but it was just the backbone of the play and there was a lot hanging off it with all of the characters adding interest and colour to the drama. Making this work was a simple set and a magnificent ensemble cast with Penny Downie as Kate impressing me the most.

My only reservation, and it is an odd one, is wondering why Rose Theatre is doing plays like this which are very much Richmond Theatre territory. Rose seems unsure if it is modern and imaginative or classic and traditional. Luckily I like both sorts of plays and both theatres.

All My Sons had the dark themes and intense dialogue that I expected from my limited exposure to Arthur Miller (Crucible and Salesman) and it lived up to their reputations. This skillful production turned a good play into a triumph.

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