Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: ALL MY SONS, Old Vic

All My SonsLondon's latest foray into Arthur Miller has serious transatlantic star power, with its leading quartet of Bill Pullman, two-time Oscar-winner Sally Field, Colin Morgan and Jenna Coleman. However, Jeremy Herrin's Old Vic/Headlong co-production is surprisingly understated, with the play's politics, rather than its passions, really shining through.

All My SonsMiller's 1947 breakthrough work is inspired by a true story about an aeronautical corporation which allowed defective engine parts to be installed in military planes.

In the play, that company belongs to self-made businessman Joe Keller, although it's his former partner, Steve, who went to prison after their firm dispensed cracked cylinder heads, leading to the deaths of 21 Second World War pilots; Joe was exonerated.

Joe's pilot son, Larry, is missing in action, although his mother Kate fiercely maintains that he's alive. That's a barrier for younger son Chris, who's in love with Larry's former sweetheart Ann - daughter of the imprisoned Steve.

It's a superbly crafted powder keg of a play, just waiting for the arrival of the lit match in the form of Ann's brother George, who carries key information. But the first half of Herrin's production is rather muted, led by Pullman's unusually laconic Joe.

It's an interesting characterisation if we read it as at least partly an act - the rumpled, twinkly-eyed patriarch fending off problems with his folksy shtick. He's a charmer playing make-believe with a neighbouring small boy, Bert, though his easy deception also acts as a red flag.

Pullman is certainly effective in the second half, as Joe's lies unravel in a torrent of self-justifications - both pitiful and alarming. But his mumbled speech swallows many of Miller's lines, and his intimate performance may not translate to the whole theatre.

It's also a slightly odd fit with Field's electrifying turn as Kate, vividly articulating every step of her tragic journey. Her whole body shakes as she recalls Larry's tree falling in the previous night's storm, and she constantly bows and hugs herself protectively, as though fending off invisible blows.

But Field also shows how Kate's pain has given her power, emotionally manipulating everyone around her. Her too-bright homemaker smile and stream of endearments are sometimes horrifyingly paired with absolute ruthlessness, often directed at Ann, the threat to her fantasy world. The climactic reveal of her complicity, and heart-wrenching justification, makes the blood run cold. Field is simply unmissable.

Both Morgan and Coleman have some accent issues, and the former never quite convinces as someone whose glowing virtue has such a significant effect on others, but there is a clear sense that this generation carries the real legacy of grief, loss and moral compromise. They're defined by a palpable absence; Ann, bewildered, notes that Larry's shoes are not just kept, but "shined".

Coleman, making her stage debut, is more effective when Ann is tenacious than sweetly tremulous - though that's partly the writing of her character, constantly ogled and objectified until she starts to define her own role. At best, she's a partner for Morgan in voicing their sense of collective responsibility, which has some resonance in today's generational divide over issues like climate change.

The subplots here work particularly well in supporting the play's driving ideas, with Sule Rimi and Kayla Meikle excellent as the doctor and his wife, wryly vocalising the tension between idealism and financially supporting a family - and showing, too, how moral compromise spreads like a disease, since they know about Joe's criminal act, but decline to disrupt this suburban harmony.

There's also a shattering moment between Oliver Johnstone's stirringly intense George - torn between two persuasive father figures, and between the lure of "home" and a difficult but just path - as he encounters his childhood sweetheart Lydia (a luminous Bessie Carter), and the pair flash back to what was and what might have been.

It makes clear that Joe's actions - though he defends them as providing for his family - in fact stole something fundamental from them, just as the war snatched so many possibilities from this ravaged generation.

There's more contemporary resonance, too, with Joe framing it as hard-working people versus an educated elite who think too much. But with no thought of others comes a terrifying Trumpian individualism, formed purely of capitalist greed and a warped idea of "the family" (or nation) above all; the dark side of the American Dream.

That's supported visually by Max Jones's set: a dominating idyllic wooden house and unchecked verdant garden that invades the Old Vic, piercingly lit by Richard Howell, plus sharp bird calls in Carolyn Downing's soundscape. Other than Field's fervent turn, this isn't the most emotive of productions, but it presents Miller's thesis with devastating clarity.

All My Sons at the Old Vic until 8 June, and broadcast live to cinemas on 14 May

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Related Stories

From This Author - Marianka Swain

Marianka Swain was UK Editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld. A London-based theatre critic and arts journalist, she also contributes to other outlets such as the Telegraph, The i Paper, Ham & H... (read more about this author)

Book Tickets Now For Christmas Treat ELF THE MUSICALBook Tickets Now For Christmas Treat ELF THE MUSICAL
April 29, 2022

Santa's favourite musical is back in town! ELF – the smash-hit Christmas musical based on the beloved film – returns to London for a strictly limited 8-week season at the Dominion Theatre in London's West End from 14 November to 7 January. Book your tickets here!

Exclusive Presale: Book Tickets Now For THE CAR MANExclusive Presale: Book Tickets Now For THE CAR MAN
April 28, 2022

Fasten your seat belts – The Car Man is back! To celebrate the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary, Matthew Bourne and his acclaimed dance company New Adventures bring their multi-award-winning production of The Car Man to the Hall for the very first time.

No Booking Fee On THE BOOK OF MORMON TicketsNo Booking Fee On THE BOOK OF MORMON Tickets
April 27, 2022

The Book of Mormon comes from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez. It's currently playing at London's Prince of Wales Theatre in the West End - and you can book tickets now with no booking fee!

Show of the Week: Book £20 Tickets For GET UP, STAND UP! THE BOB MARLEY MUSICALShow of the Week: Book £20 Tickets For GET UP, STAND UP! THE BOB MARLEY MUSICAL
April 25, 2022

Get yourself where the action is and experience the remarkable story of Jamaica’s rebel superstar. The irresistible new production, Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical, has come to life at the Lyric Theatre, London and the message is out. Book exclusively priced tickets now!

Save 55% On Tickets To ANYTHING GOESSave 55% On Tickets To ANYTHING GOES
April 22, 2022

The sold-out musical sensation Anything Goes returns to the Barbican by popular demand. The ‘musical equivalent of sipping one glass of champagne after another’ returns for a limited 7 week season.