Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman, Noel Coward Theatre

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC's Death of a Salesman

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC’s Death of a Salesman

Now into its final week at London’s Noël Coward Theatre after transferring from Stratford-Upon-Avon in May, the RSC’s Death of a Salesman shows no sign of slowing down. The Gregory Doran-directed production is hugely powerful, a juggernaut of emotions and intensity with staggeringly good performances.

Arthur Miller’s tale of one man’s downfall at the hands of his own stubborn pride is a masterpiece of theatre, but one that requires a deft directorial hand and confident acting to pull off. Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, has been flogging stuff on the road in New England for 36 years and is dog tired. His small life isn’t big enough to contain his dreams and he starts hallucinating about the past, back to a time when his sons, Happy and Biff, were young and full of potential. He also re-visits the moment his successful – and now dead – brother Ben left New York to start a new life in Alaska – later Africa – and his ghostly form drifts into Willy’s head and onto the stage with a smarmy smugness.

Juggling the past and present in a theatre production isn’t easy, but Doran makes it look like it is, the ease with which Willy’s mind alerts in front of us is impressively seamless and the cast handle the jolts in time with a fluidity that takes us right into the heart of the story.

Willy is, of course, a frustrating character. On the brink of madness, he’s been dealt some fierce blows in his 63-years, but his downfall – like King Lear’s – is ultimately his stubborn pride in himself and his son Biff. That he isn’t able to live up to the man he projects to be is a key part in the downfall of the adolescent Biff, who goes from being a well liked teenager with potential to the 34-year-old man we see on stage – broken, bitter, confused. The Death of a Salesman is in many ways about the curse of being ordinary

Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman is really something special. He captures Loman’s madness, vulnerability, nativity and arrogance in a compelling performance. The always watchable Harriet Walter is exceptional as Linda, Willy’s long suffering wife whose patience is saintly yet steely. As with other Miller wives, Linda’s husband is her life; her strength is his – in many ways she’s the powerful figure in the house. I can’t imagine these Miller’s wives are easy roles to play without seeming meek and submissive, but there’s real strength in Walter’s performance. Alex Hassell as Biff is also a perfect mix of vulnerable, confused and angry. He is the only character who seeks the truth about himself and his family. He is as believable as the ‘hey, gee’ football playing 17-year-old as he is as the jobless kleptomaniac he becomes. Sam Marks as the younger son Happy manages to flesh out what is a deliberately a one-dimensional character – I even rather liked him.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set accentuates the gloomy claustrophobia of a Brooklyn before it was fashionable without it overwhelming. Although it would have had its work cut out to overshadow this powerhouse of a production.

Death of a Salesman | Noel Coward Theatre | Until 18 July 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

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Theatre Review: Good People, Noël Coward Theatre

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Matthew Barker, Imelda Staunton, Lorraine Ashbourne and June Watson in Good People

There’s been some mutterings in the press in recent weeks about new US playwrights and actors staging some kind of theatrical coup in London.

Of the past six plays I’ve seen, three have been American (and I’m lined up to see Kathleen Turner in the latest production from across the pond in Bakersfield Mist this week). Now call me bad at math(s), but I’m not sure this percentage constitutes a takeover; I don’t think we’ll have to call on some stage hands to erect an MDF wall around Shaftesbury Avenue just yet.

And at least we have national treasure Imelda Staunton flying the flag for British talent as the lead in one of these plays from those New World upstarts, a play that deals with that very English problem – class – in a very un-English way.

After a sold-out, critically acclaimed run at Hampstead Theatre, Good People has transferred to the Noël Coward theatre to fill the bare stage following the early demise of The Full Monty. You could draw plenty of comparisons between Good People and The Full Monty; both are about blue-collar workers facing an uphill struggle against constant disappointment and bad luck. But David Lindsay-Abaire’s play – loosely based on his own upbringing in South Boston’s tough neighbourhood known as “Southie” – is sharper, savvier and doesn’t flinch from issues of class and race. Plus there’s no Donna Summer and everyone keeps their clothes on.

We first meet Margie (Staunton) as she’s being sacked by her boss (a former friend’s son) from her dead-end job in a dollar store after he tires of her chronic lateness. She’s only late, she pleads, because her babysitter (her upstairs neighbour and landlady) never turns up on time to mind Margie’s grown-up, disabled daughter.

Her plight is obvious, but while she’s clearly a woman with some tough obstacles, she’s not presented as a virtuous person, there’s a hint of malice and dishonesty in her that tarnishes her situation, or rather our sympathies for her situation.

Right from beginning, Margie is an ambiguous figure and your sympathies for her oscillate throughout the play. On the whole,  thanks to the terrific warmth and humour that Staunton instils in her,  I was largely on her side, and when it looked like I’d been duped, I felt betrayed, only for Lindsay-Abaire  to nimbly challenge what we thought was happening.

At rock bottom and facing eviction, Margie’s gobby friend Jean (played with relish by Lorraine Ashbourne) mentions how she’s recently bumped into a an old school friend Mike (Lloyd Owen) who has escaped the mean streets of “Southie” for posh Chestnut Hill – which we will see later is all White Company beige and creams – and how he may have a job for her. He got out thanks to his big brain, pushy dad, and we learn, protection from the harsher realities of life .

The awkward meeting in his fancy office (he’s now a successful fertility doctor) unearths more of Margie’s simmering anger at the injustice of life and rattles Mike enough for his smooth Chestnut Hill veneer to slip to reveal some Southie tough talking. Angered by Margie’s comment that he’s become “lace-curtain Irish” he invites her to his party at the weekend. When he later phones to tell her the party has been cancelled, Margie doesn’t believe him and turns up at his house anyway.

Here we meet Mike’s young, beautiful, middle class wife and Lindsay-Abaire’s funny, punchy script and some fine acting from the three main players (Merlin’s Angel Coulby is superb as Mike’s overly fastidious wife Kate) makes for some compelling face-offs as truth, choice and what constitutes nice get debated with little finesse over cheese and wine.

Good People is  about class and race, nature versus nurture; an examination of the American Dream where you can – so they say – aspire to be anything as long as you work at it. It challenges the idea that we get where we are because we deserve to be – an idea (lie) that is still pedalled furiously by those who can afford to, forgetting that even being born with the drive to succeed is fortunate.

For all its messages, Good People is a play you can enjoy on its own merits; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and the past provides enough intrigue to keep you gripped to the end. And despite its dark edges, there’s warmth and tenderness, played without a hint of sentimentality.

Good People runs until 14 June at the Noël Coward theatre. For more information and tickets visit www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott