All My Sons. Axbridge Town Hall.
Cover-ups, complicity, concealment. Welcome to the great American corporate scandal where greed overturns good business practice and eventually brings down the mighty. In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons staged by Axbridge Community Theatre (ACT) in the town hall thoughts of dodgy diesel emission readings, iffy tumble driers prone to bursting into flames or Enron’s accountancy practices come to mind – but pale compared to the crime committed by Joe Keller.
“He murdered 21 pilots,” said his son Chris Keller. The ‘he’ Chris referred to in Act One is not his father, but his father’s former business partner (and potentially his future father-in-law) Steve Deever who is doing time for covering up defective airplane parts bound for the US Airforce. The parts were turned out by their factory at the height and panic of the Second World War – leading to the deaths of 21 pilots when their aircraft crashed as a result.
It’s the way Miller unpicks the scandal in the back yard of a typical Middle-American family that makes the play so compelling. A chance comment by Kate Keller about her husband’s health and her belief her missing-in-action son Larry will return, along with the digging of Steve Deever’s son George slowly unpicks the seemingly unassailable patriarch Joe’s standing. It’s a slow burn but the warning signs are there – from the symbolism of the fallen tree to the barbed comments of Sue Bayliss who along with others, suspects the truth that Steve took the rap for the scandal and Joe the profits.
The town hall was transformed by the work of Dave Parkin and Dave Moore into the decked veranda of a cosy American home and garden complete with bench and easy chairs. In particular the lighting was evocative and helped define the change from sun washed day to eerie twilight while the costumes helped to fix the drama in the late 1940s with the stylishly fitted dresses for the women and heavy suits for the guys.
Directed by John Bailey the production’s strength was its adherence to Miller’s universal moralistic story of how covering-up a crime is almost as bad as the crime itself. By careful casting the director managed to bring out the full depth of each character including the lighter moments which brought laughter from the audience and also some of the more complex speeches where difficult themes are conveyed in everyday words. This deftness of touch is something few productions are fortunate enough to have from their director.
A full cast was completed with two actors taking on the role of Bert with Jess Willis playing the unsuspecting juvenile for two nights and Tebu Domingo for the last two performances. A small part played with youthful innocence and total confidence by both actors to reinforce the realism of the play – but for Miller a chance to reveal the hidden gun in Joe’s house (and vital plot point) along with his imperfect roll as a law-abiding citizen.
Chris Jarman as Joe Keller had the right balance of flipping between the grumpy thin-skinned business man ready to defend himself at the slightest hint of criticism and the genial family man he’d prefer to be seen as. In a very strong performance as his wife Kate, Sue Hughes convinced as the woman who wants to turn the clock back, who is complicit in the scandal and in denial that her son Larry won’t be coming home from the war. Her inner turmoil was etched in her face as she wrestled with the impossible.
Peter Honeyhands as their son looked and sounded the part and managed the American accent with skill using his core accent as a base for the trans-Atlantic vowels – a trick difficult enough for the most seasoned actor – especially in a full length play. Another member of the honorary order of genuine Yanks was Sarah Kendall as the sleek love interest who gave a classy performance as Miller’s device to create tensions within the Keller clan by hitching up with the brother of their lost son.
Her legal brother-in-arms was George Deever played by Tony Wilson who with his hat and heavy suit looked for a moment to have stepped out of a Philip Marlowe novel. Miller gives George the mission to expose the truth which Tony Wilson achieved with relish in calling to account the lies of Joe Keller along with the evils of unfettered capitalistic greed.
They could be described as the odd couple but there was considerable enjoyment in the twinning of Phil Saunders as Dr Jim Bayliss and Siân Tutill as his wife Sue. This Jim was clearly from down south with his rustic drawl, but despite his agricultural appearance and easy going nature is the play’s philosopher telling Kate Keller that her disillusioned son Chris would: “…come back. We all come back Kate. These private little revolutions die. The compromise is always made. In a peculiar way Frank is right – every man does have a star.”
Siân Tutill gave a sharply barbed and show-stopping performance as Jim’s brusque, blunt speaking wife as she spelt out the truth to a disbelieving Ann Deever in a delightfully bitchy scene as Sue rounds on Ann’s Chris. “I resent living next door to the Holy family,” she says and goes in for the kill: “Everybody knows Joe pulled a fast one to get out of jail.”
Miller added the characters of Frank and Lydia Lubey to give both reality and fantasy to the proceedings. Air-head Frank is convinced lost son Larry Keller is alive as he peddles astrological evidence of his existence to desperate Kate Keller. He represents the hopes of thousands of post war families searching in vain for missing relatives and his attempts to help only stir the pot of disquiet. Nigel Newton conveyed the boyish blankness in his nonsensical beliefs – a sort of bland everyman who fails to make sense of the world around him – while his wife Lydia represents the equivalent female in society who in 1940s America tried to stay positive as eternally happy home-maker and baby producer. Lydia was played with a wholesome, your-dinner-is-on-the-table spirit by Anna Hind in the supporting role. But she reminds us with her baby talk that we were seeing Miller’s moral fable of doing the right thing within the universal setting of a family.
This was one of the best productions staged by ACT so far – partly due to the maturing nature of the company – but also due to the nearness of the setting. We are familiar with the American way of life through television and films and this drama with its realistic setting and dialogue suited the cast by and large. Yes, some of the accents were nearer to Lundy Island than Long Island but professional movie stars have had the same problem in holding a consistency of vocal control. And in places some members of the cast were acting their characters rather than slipping into the fabric of the person they were portraying giving moments of stiffness in the proceedings which faded from the initial dress rehearsal to the last night when increasingly they sounded and looked more comfortable. A longer run would clearly solve that issue.
One other point was sound. Diction and projection were fine but since much of the action was outdoors there could have been occasional background noises such as distant traffic, the wind or birdsong to add to the realism. Small points but worth including – in what was a convincing, enjoyable and extremely well presented production. And a production from a company that continues to draw audiences from outside of the town as their reputation grows.
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