In his All My Sons review for The Guardian, Michael Billington compares Arthur Miller’s play to J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. They’re both set around the same time, albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and explore the consequences of putting family before community. After seeing the production in Billington’s review, which screened to cinemas from London’s Old Vic earlier this month, it’s easy to see how he makes this connection.
As in Priestley’s play, two generations clash – the socially aware youth, and the family-first elders. But in Miller’s play, the clash is literal – and in this production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, the actors portray this conflict in a gut-wrenchingly physical performance.
Bill Pullman plays Joe Keller; the head of the household in which the play is set. On first impression, he’s a harmless, jolly and ageing American patriarch; slurring his words and limping across the garden to humour the neighbourhood kids. His wife Kate, played by Sally Field, seems frailer and more unhinged. The year is 1946, and their son Larry has been MIA for over three years. Kate still hopes he’ll return home safe and sound, but she seems to be the only one who believes so. When she refers to recent news articles in which missing soldiers have turned up, Field nods and smiles hopefully – she plays it sympathetically it’s impossible not to feel sad watching her.
Their older son Chris, played by Colin Morgan, has invited Ann Deever – an old neighbour and Larry’s sweetheart before the war – to stay at the Keller household. She’s still single and Chris intends to marry her, which is a bit of a problem with Kate believing Larry is still alive.
This tension is the initial problem, but as the plot progresses, and we discover more and more about the Keller and Deever families’ past, the conflict evolves into an elaborate battle of ideals. The initial tragicomic family dynamic descends into a pure tragedy, and once the truth about Larry is revealed, there’s no going back. Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has a similar motif: an ambiguously absent son, whose existence is shrouded in delusion – and once this delusion is dispelled, things simply can’t go back to the way they were.
Two standout performances are from Field and Morgan, whose characters completely change when the game-changing truth threatens to reveal itself. Field seems so delicate throughout, which makes it all the more unnerving when she loses her mind and starts pushing and shoving Joe, with the order “I’ll never let him go, and you’ll never let him go!” Morgan plays Chris as a young man drunk in love, almost as endearing as he was in Merlin, right up until the truth is revealed to him. His anger is so intense, and his manner so severe. He screams at his father: “you’re not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you? What must I do to you? I ought to tear the tongue out of your mouth…”
Pullman balances out the raucousness, as he plays Joe to be quietly overwhelmed by guilt – turning inwards in self-reflection as he finds out the personal consequence of his past actions. Jenna Coleman – her first stage appearance since Victoria – plays Ann in a similar fashion. She is the bearer of the destructive news, yet her melancholy is subtle and controlled, compared to Morgan’s wildness.
Much like Miller’s later play Death of a Salesman, it’s a play that focuses on the fragility of the traditional American family. The set design, very much influenced by photographer Gregory Crewdson, reflects this. Crewdson’s pictures are surreal and unnerving tableaux of small-town, midwestern American homes. And this is what this play, and specifically this performance, does; it turns a cosy looking backyard into the most terrifying place on the planet.