There are a lot of very famous people in Jeremy Herrin’s revival of Arthur Miller’s early classic ‘All My Sons’. So many that the fact it marks the professional stage debut of Jenna Coleman (of ‘Doctor Who’ etcetera) doesn’t even feel like a particularly big deal: she and fellow Brit Colin Morgan (‘Merlin’) happily accept second-tier billing behind American giants Bill ‘the president in “Independence Day”’ Pullman and Sally ‘two Oscars’ Field.
For all that, it’s a surprisingly restrained affair, in which Max Jones’s set probably gives the most overtly flamboyant performance. A vividly naturalistic, almost hyperreal suburban house and garden, strikingly lit by Richard Howell, it looms over everything like a monolith, until finally at the end it dramatically recedes. It is the hope, the dream, the prize, the lie that holds protagonists the Kellers together, years after they should have fallen apart.
Joe Keller (Pullman) is a well-off factory owner, who lives in the house with his fragile wife Kate (Field) and their idealistic son Chris (Morgan). The other Keller son, Larry, seems to have died during the Second World War, although a body has never been found, and Kate refuses to give up hope.
On this evening, Chris has brought home Ann (Coleman, solid in a fairly minor role), Larry’s ex-girlfriend and the daughter of Joe’s former business partner Steve, who we discover was jailed for selling faulty parts to the US airforce, which resulted in 21 pilots (yes, the band is named after this play) losing their lives. Both Joe and Steve were jailed for it, but Joe got out on appeal and seems to now be living a respectable suburban life in which he takes care to tell anyone who’ll listen that the deaths were definitely all Steve’s fault.
Herrin and his constellation of stars keep things low key. The characters are tuned down, not up, and Pullman and Morgan speak in mumbly naturalistic voices that take a while to adjust to. The first half, in particular, is borderline laid back.
But there is a lot to be said for eschewing the operatics: this production sneaks up on you, as Pullman’s studiedly affable, occasionally menacing Joe finds himself running out of space for his folksy shtick and complicated self-justifications. Field’s nervy Kate finds herself having to move on from the role of grieving mother that she has played so well. And Morgan’s Chris is forced to reconcile his morals with his family. The Kellers are in denial, and they awaken from it slowly but with great pain.
You don’t get the sort of ‘big’ acting you might expect from this play and this cast. Morgan is the only one who even really gets to have a good shout. But Pullman and Field are good enough actors to hold us riveted regardless. Both performances are masterclasses in moral ambivalence. And in showing the Kellers to be flawed, fragile human beings and not speechifying villains, I think Herrin and cast makes a lot of sense of the play. I guess Miller’s key point here is that from the suburbs up, capitalist society can only really live with itself via the medium of denial. The most devastating revelation here isn’t necessarily whether or not Joe is guilty: it’s that his neighbours believe him to be guilty, and despise him, but don’t care enough to do anything about it. And as swathes of America turn a blind eye to the actions of its current president, Joe’s actions seem pretty small time.