first night

All My Sons

Nick Chapman reviews Phoenix Theatre Company's second show of the year.

 Walking into Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s first successful Broadway play, I was blown away by the set. They had somehow successfully created the outside of an American middle-class house with its front yard, complete with fake grass and white picket fences. For this alone, the production team should garner high praise. They continued to impress throughout the show, managing to replicate believably a full-scale storm that knocks over a tree in the yard. But this amazing crew did not lose an eye for the smaller details – the sound cues were all executed perfectly, and the subtle colouring of the lighting palate really gave a sense of time passing.

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the production were of the same standard. Director Nicola Orrell decided to condense rehearsals into a short span of two weeks and, to be frank, it showed. The performances of the four central roles were uniformly solid; after Wilf Wort successfully brought us into Keller's world, Dixi Taylor captured Kate’s neuroses well in her first appearance. But there was no development of these characters. The performances meandered on the same note for two hours, ignoring the drama and psychological complexity packed into the situations. It was almost as if no detailed character work had been done at all; the whole thing had a schoolboy ‘stand-and-deliver’ feeling to it. Miller does pose a difficult challenge for the actors and director: vast swathes of naturalistic dialogue are punctuated by these moments of extreme emotion, which would not be out of place in Greek tragedy. In such moments, Miller’s lively characters ought to sing. In this production, the characters barely reacted, instead clinging to a naturalism that felt out of place and made the production flat, lacking in energy. It’s a crying shame, as with such an abundantly talented cast, a bit more careful work could have shaped these glorious characters into something compelling. The exception to this was Zac Tiplady’s excellent turn as Chris Keller; after economically establishing the boyish optimist, the moment in which the character has a realisation about his father was acted with gut-wrenching detail. Tiplady’s face practically contorted as he cried and raged to his mother. It is such a shame that none of the other cast were able to match him.

The theatrical space was badly used, with stilted blocking. Some lines were delivered with the actors’ backs towards the audience, and the characters’ movements were seemingly random at places. With such an elaborate set, there were significant limitations of choice for the director. However, these limitations could have been turned to the production’s strength; with the restriction of space on the upper level, the production could have focussed on painting a detailed portrait of the psychology at play and brought to life a well-rounded, three-dimensional character.  Instead, the characters seemed to ‘switch off' during scenes. This wasn’t helped by the fact that nobody played any background action when they didn’t have lines; they simply watched the main action across the stage.

This lack of improvisation was one of a number of silly mistakes that plagued the play. The accents, for one, more than a couple of times swung back into fully rounded English vowels. When crossing the stage, most actors shuffled their feet. There were projection issues with some cast members. There were a few prop mishaps that weren’t dealt with effectively by the cast, making them even more obvious to the audience. Some of the diction was so poor that I had no idea what was being said, meaning I was left to try and piece together the plot from other characters’ reactions. Once again, all of this could have been so easily remedied with more attention to detail. 

It is difficult not to feel disappointed leaving this production of All My Sons. With such a strong play and considerable talent in both the cast and production team, one has to view this as a missed opportunity. A pity, as with a closer eye for details, a little more polish and a lot more energy, this could have been one of the most memorable productions this year. 

16 March 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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