Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Josie Rose Embleton, Tazy Harrison-Moore and Catriona Maclachlan
There’s a figurative list of productions in critical circles, of shows and titles that (for lack of a better descriptive) make eyes roll or force exhales of breath. They’re the titans of theatre, particularly attractive to the amateur dramatic and student-led companies; from the lofts of Tennessee Williams or Samuel Beckett to the classic foundations of Aphra Behn or Sophocles. Arthur Miller and All My Sons fall into this category. And there’s an unwritten rule that amateur productions and professional companies are held to differing standards of criticism, where acquittances are made for a lack of budget or time constraints.
But we can’t do that for The Edinburgh University Theatre Company, because bluntly put – All My Sons is far too good to be held to anything less than professional standards. The entire cast and crew are deserving of their standing ovations, breathing vigour and vibrancy into an otherwise dusted-off definitive.
For the uninitiated, Miller’s traumatic and taut play concerns the Keller family and their arrival at the shimmering gates of the American Dream. Joe, business owner, husband, and father, has everything he could provide for his family, but war has left the family in the doldrum of limbo. Their son Larry, MIA for years, is alive and well in his mother Kate’s thoughts, but to his brother, father and once girlfriend Ann, his time has passed, but acceptance is a bitter pill.
And as the ashen edges of reality creep around that American dream, where truth, more than any conspiracy, is the real enemy to this family, secrets unveil themselves as Joe, Kate, and surrounding neighbours begin to have their hearts broken – all stemming from one lonely, broken tree in Kate’s Garden.
Brilliances are made by the cauldron of directors, three no less, who miraculously maintain a synergetic vision despite their numbers. Josie Rose Embleton, Tazy Harrison-Moore and Catriona Maclachlan achieve coherency in repositioning the play, and mercifully maintain the three-act structure without extending the runtime. They retain the time period of Miller’s juggernaut production but instil an accessible contemporisation, where concepts of character change and gender become obsolete and thoroughly welcomed. And drawing a contemporary stance out of the tale, where the commercialisation of war and the profiteering of the desecrated is, unfortunately, not a relic of the past.
But where Joe Keller may be the epitome of the American lug-head in the original play, Ted Ackery stands not as the simpleton, nor even fully-fledged villain, but as a Keller who embodies that amiable 1940s figure-headed patriarch of the family, a man who balances everything on the thin needle of his own world. Much of the tale circles Ackery, who has a concerningly calming presence as the father figure, offering little doubt as to why the neighbourhood would take to the man so easily. The characterisation at first is veneer, but the depths of self-inflicted agony, carried throughout the years is a triumph in multi-layered performance, from the deflections of humour towards Florence Carr-Jones’ neighbourly kid Bert’s to the more controlling yet still friendly façade he shares with Olivia Carpenter and Priya Basra as Ann and George Denver.
Darting around the cast, Conor Ó’Cuinn’s Chris, the surviving son of Joe and Kate, and hopeful betrothed to Ann (his brother’s girlfriend), Ó’Cuinn has a significantly difficult task of communicating a wide arrange of social interactions. From the romantic chemistry with Carpenter to his often ill-wanted advice with neighbours Lucy Lane and Marina Funcasta, Funcasta makes a delightfully sharper Sue than most productions tend to flesh out. Ó’Cuinn succeeds in diversifying the range, bringing a much-needed dose of comedy from routines with the ‘green’ loving Frank (Tom Catton) and suffering mother of three Lydia (Fiona Forster).
But if all seems too quaint in this neighbourhood, just wait.
Any concerns that accents (which by and large are rather clean and articulate) may be detracting from performances reaching a visceral level of emotional projection are completely demolished come the production’s second act, where the levels of pathos on display are crystalline in their communication. Yes, through Ackery and Ó’Cuinn’s more vocal aggressions, but within Lucy Melrose’s authentic acceptance of grief and the loss of not only her son but family. Melrose instils a significant amount of compassion in Kate, making the often-trivialised mother placing hope in horoscopes, into a dimensional woman holding the strings of the family together behind Joe’s back. Melrose’s facial expression as reality crumbles around her is a harrowing sight, a peculiar blending of youthful hope, shattered into a woman betwixt despair and action.
With limits of space, the direction does well to tie it into the dynamics of the intensity of the emotional space rather than hide, where there is no escape for Joe, further reinforcing the jail closing around him. Martha Barrow and Sky Willis’ lighting accentuates this, filling in the gaps of space to hone focus on the onstage talent and stop distracting eyes from wandering.
Producing a plethora of shows throughout the year, the dedication and talents present within the EUTC are always a feat to be proud of – and All My Sons may well be one of their most shining moments. Contemporising a piece of literary history; a show adapted, re-adapted and translated time and time again into something fresh, engaging, and far superior to many of the professional stagings of the show.