Friday, 02 June 2017

Death of a Salesman

After the sudden death of its lead actor, just before opening, the cast respectfully carries on

Written by Robert Gore-Langton

The title now seems sadly prophetic. This touring production was meant to have starred Tim Pigott-Smith, whose unexpected death (he was 70) shortly before the show’s opening took everyone by surprise. His actress wife Pamela Miles had previously pulled out of the cast due to an injury. Instead of abandoning this seemingly doomed touring project, the producers have rightly re-cast it and dedicated it to the actor’s memory.

Nicholas Woodeson has boldly stepped into the part of Willy Loman, the washed-up salesman in Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic. Boldly, because it’s one of the mightiest parts in American drama, recently performed in london by Antony Sher. The original Loman was Lee J Cobb, later eclipsed in the screen version by Dustin Hoffman. Robert-Gore-Langton-176

Woodeson is eminently watchable – a fierce, short-fused, pacing, stocky figure, a lifetime on the road etched into his grey temples and worn grey suit. He is haunted by his own failure and is callously sacked by his company after decades of service, and he keeps a rubber pipe in the basement with unspoken thoughts of gassing himself as his life closes in.

One of the advantages of updating the look of the show to the present is to cast new feminist light on the plight of his wife Linda (Tricia Kelly, excellent), who has to live with all of Willy’s undue optimism, anger and delusions – or is it dementia? – while trying to contain his distressing war with his feckless sons, happy and Biff (Ben Deery and George Taylor). Her role is that of peacekeeper. Her struggle to keep her man’s spirits up is heroic and to be constantly told to pipe down is her reward.

This is such a great, if gloomy, play about family life near the breadline. Among moments of terrible revelation is Biff’s discovery of his pop’s adultery in a Boston hotel room – a pin-drop scene.

As a play, it’s particularly wrenching for all the fathers who feel like a failure and all the sons who feel they’re a disappointment. Willy’s inner fantasy sequences are less successfully staged and there’s a daft neon sign glaring ‘land of the free’ above the stage. The point that Willy is a captive hardly needs such an obvious ironic statement.

Even though it is rather casually updated, Abigail Graham’s production still seems well worth rescuing from the saddest of circumstances.

From 13 to 17 June at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton: 01604–624811, 

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