Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Phil Astle as Joe Keller and Alison Cahill as his troubled wife Kate. Picture: Emily White

All My Sons

Highbury Theatre Centre


This is the play that launched Arthur Miller as a giant of 20th century theatre, and more than 70 years on it is still a powerful piece of beautifully crafted drama producing one of Highbury’s best performances for some time.

Miller’s second play, The Man Who Had All The Luck, (his first No Villain was written while at university) had bombed on Broadway, closing after four performances and All My Sons was make or break time for Miller.

It was based on a story in an Ohio newspaper about how an Ohio manufacturer and Army inspectors had conspired to supply faulty aircraft engines to the military, the scenario which became the foundation stone for Miller’s damning account of the American Dream.

The play is set in August 1946 in the back yard of Joe Keller’s home somewhere in the Midwest. Joe (Phil Astle) is a self-made, wealthy man, made even wealthier by the war contracts for engines for P40 fighters awarded to his company.

With son Chris, (Alex Westwood) safely back from the war and hopefully going to take over the business one day, Joe should be content and pleased with life – except there is a nervous energy about him, a quick temper, raised voices, bluster, even anger, defensive even when not being attacked, even his jokes about his lack of education and sophistication are barbed and self-protective.

Chris was a platoon commander in the war and has returned dismayed that men had fought and died and nothing has changed. The loss of most of his platoon who died for each other, has had a profound and lasting effect.

His mother Kate (Alison Cahill) is a sad case. Her son Larry, a WWII pilot went missing in action in the South China Seas three and a half years ago and she is the only person who thinks he is still alive.

Well, not quite, there is always Frank (Dan Holyhead) next door, who is into astrology in a big way and is convinced Larry can’t be dead because the day he went missing was his favourable day, and in the world of astrology you can’t die on such a day.

His wife, Lydia (Amy White) is pretty and a breath of fresh air, the only one you can say that about. She has no apparent hang-ups and is just a happy, normal, attractive housewife, with three children and a smile to brighten the gathering clouds.

Neighbours on the other side are the rather gloomy Dr Jim Bayliss (Sean Mulkeen) and his resentful wife Sue (Eliza Harris). He seems to see his patients as an inconvenience, not really ill, merely a nuisance while Sue sees them more as income.

Jim would rather become a medical researcher – saving the world - while Sue blames Chris, idealistic Chris, for fuelling the idea, the idea being a job which would pay much less than his current doctor’s income. She also resents the way the Kellers seem to get away with everything – which is a glimpse of the elephant in the room – or at least the Keller’s back yard.

Jim and Sue had bought the house of Joe’s long-time partner Steve, a partner who had been jailed for knowingly supplying defective cylinder heads for Curtis P40 fighters; 21 pilots had died as a result.

Joe had been exonerated – or, as many people thought, had got away with it, having claimed to have been off with flu on the day the cylinder heads were shipped out, claiming he knew nothing about it.

Steve’s daughter Ann (Kimberley Marlow) had been Larry’s girl, but had accepted his death and she had arrived for a visit at the invitation of Chris. He wanted to marry her but to his mother Ann was still Larry’s girl and Larry was still coming home. She carried with her a secret that would destroy that belief . . . and with it the family.


Then there is Steve’s son George (James Cutajar). He and Lydia were an item before the war. Now he is a hot-shot New York lawyer. Both George and Ann had disowned their father, believing him, and him alone, guilty . . . except George has just been to see his father in jail for the first time and arrives at the Keller’s house to take Ann away from the Keller family, to stop her marrying Chris, someone who was his best friend before the war.

His return explodes everything that had been simmering under the surface for so long in a dramatic climax as everything comes to a head with Chris feeling it the most, declaring in anguish: "I know you're no worse than other men, but I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man ... I saw you as my father."

Miller uses clever devices to strengthen the plot. We open with a tree planted in Larry’s memory which has blown down during the night in the same month as Larry’s birthday and the same night that Ann is staying in his room – all signs to the susceptible Kate.

Then there is Bert (Ben Nicholson) a little lad who comes to the Keller’s house to play, believing Joe is a big detective and has made him a policeman. He also believes Joe has a jail in his basement.

His first appearance seems silly, pointless, taking the plot nowhere.

Later we realise the significance of the origins of the game with Bert, and his second appearance is the catalyst for an outburst by Kate when the jail, or the lack of it, has a resonance far beyond the silly game with a naive child.

Ian Appleby direction is beautifully paced and nuanced with the characters, apart from Lydia of course, all appearing to be never quite at ease.

The set by Malcolm Robertshaw is simple and effective with a white painted clapboard rear of the house and a visible window so the couple of times when phone calls are featured the person on the phone can be seen and heard.

The cast are universally excellent, Astle gives Joe a sort of unlikeable, hail fellow quality, someone you could never quite trust while Alison’s Kate is normal one minute, a mother in dangerous denial the next; Kimberley’s Ann is sensible and pragmatic seeing the world as it is not as Kate wants it to be, while Alex’s Chris is still haunted by ghosts from the past, his brother but most of all the men who died under his command. His belief in his father being more of a crutch than a rock to hold on to. The final scenes are painful to watch as a family is torn apart by guilt, shame, anger and loss.

Sean’s Jim is a disaffected doctor and we are never quite sure if his attitude to his marriage is jokey or serious, while Sue is jolly and friendly but with sharp edges and a simmering loathing of the Kellers.

James’ George comes over as a man angry and confused, on the one hand betrayed, on the other seeing a past life when all was well and he was happy.

Dan’s Frank seems normal even when he enters the world of astrology, while Amy’s Lydia breezes along as if nothing has happened.

For any aspiring playwrights this is an example from a master. No character is superfluous, all play a part. The plot opens with a blank canvas and bit by bit pieces are added building the story and the tension to a final climax. Beautifully written, acted and directed and well worth seeing. To 06-07-19.

Roger Clarke


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