This is one of those posts I feel a little guilty about writing, because I’m gong to eulogise about a play which is no longer available to see… this probably won’t bother those of you who are anyhow unavailable to get to London, but I’m sorry to tease those of you who could do… because my friends Becca and Cath and I went to see the last performance of All My Sons.
I’ll start by saying that was the best thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre. I don’t have the encyclopaedic experience of theatre which some can boast – prohibitive ticket prices mean that I’m most likely to be found at RSC performances, since they have cheap tickets for young-uns. Still, I do go when I can, and was determined to see All My Sons… when I discovered Jemima Rooper was in it. She has followed me throughout my life, appearing in many of my favourite programmes – The Famous Five when I was a child; As If when I was a teenager; Lost in Austen while I’m in my twenties. What will come next, one wonders… it is certainly fitting that she has appeared in my favourite theatre experience.
All My Sons is a 1947 play by American playwright Arthur Miller, and somehow my first encounter with him. Almost everyone else seems to have read or seen The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, but Oxford’s non-American syllabus and happenstance have led to me not really knowing anything about Miller. Well, he isn’t a bucketful of laughs – it’s one of those criticism-of-the-American-Dream pieces which seemed to abound after WW2. But Miller covers a very sensitive area for the post-war world. It gradually emerges that the central man (Joe, played phenomenally by David Suchet) and his neighbour had been arrested for shipping broken aeroplane parts out to the air force – leading to the death of 21 men. Joe was acquitted; Steve was not, and is currently in jail.
Steve’s daughter Ann (the lovely Jemima Rooper) has come to stay with Joe’s family. Miller uses the technique seen in plays like The Second Mrs. Tanqueray by Arthur Pindero and The Great Broxopp by A.A. Milne, where a character is described and awaited by all and sundry before they actually appear on the scene, so Ann’s entrance is built up no end. She had been the sweetheart of Larry, Joe and Kate’s (Zoe Wanamaker) son who was lost in the war. She is now romantically involved with their other son, Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore), but they’re afraid to reveal this – because in Kate’s mind, Larry is still coming home.
This is the central emotional thread of the play, and must have been even more poignant in 1947 – coming (or refusing to come) to terms with the almost certain death of a son, when a body has never been found. The guilt of those who survived, or those who profitted by the war – and everyone trying to piece life back together. Then there is the question of what is and what is not honourable in wartime – and the relative importance of family and country. It’s all in there.
Miller’s structure could probably be quite easily dissected. He is a fan of the set piece, or the dramatic twist, and these push All My Sons through its various scenarios. But there is so much more than plot on offer – the emotional journeys of each character are beautifully drawn, and were brilliantly realised by an astonishingly good cast. The play was advertised as having David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker in its lead roles – and, indeed, if David Suchet doesn’t win all manner of awards then it would be a travesty; having only seen him as Poirot, I was not aware of his range – but this is definitely an ensemble piece. The four central actors have fairly equal amounts of material, and worked so well together that I don’t think I ever want to see the play again – it could never live up to this precedent.
Of course, I am biased in Jemima Rooper’s direction, and it was thrilling to see on stage an actress I love so much. But everyone was strikingly good – both halves of the play were pacy and gripping, and that is said by someone with quite a short attention sp— sorry, what were we talking about? (A-ha-ha.) It certainly wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything – although the nature of plays, unlike books or films, is transitory, I will cling on to the memories I have of All My Sons – it has become the benchmark against which I will measure future visits to the theatre.
Oh, and it wasn’t just me – Cath and Becca loved it, and the audience gave it a standing ovation. (See also Michael Billington’s appreciative Guardian review.) I’m sorry that the chance has passed to see this performance, but perhaps one of the filmed versions is worth seeing…?