Verdict: A masterclass from Suchet
The American Clock
(Old Vic, London)
Verdict: It runs slow
Some actors are knighted — in order of deservedness Branagh, Jacobi, Holm, Rylance, McKellen.
It was even Sir Roger Moore. Yet David Suchet remains ‘Mr’. Baffling. Whitehall’s arts honours committee may be chaired by low-grade (Sir) Peter Bazalgette, but are its other members asleep?
‘Sir’ David, as he should be, opened on the West End this week in Arthur Miller’s The Price. He plays Gregory Solomon, octogenarian second-hand furniture dealer in Sixties New York.
Solomon wears a threadbare brown pinstripe three-piece suit and fur-collared coat. You can almost smell the moth balls.
Instead, there is an aroma of Cuban tobacco — deliciously a proper cigar, which wafts into the stalls — which Solomon puffs despite his hacking cough.
David Suchet is the stage actor of his generation. He scintillates, says Quentin Letts after watching him play Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s The Price
His front teeth protrude from a gaunt, bearded face. He licks his lips with witty mischief. Suchet’s guttural Solomon is mesmerising, eyes darting behind smudged spectacles, a shrivelled survivor who has not lost his delight in a deal and his keen analysis of human foibles.
We are in for a lot of windy Miller in the next few months and The Price is typical of this playwright, being long and wordy and talking the audience through every character’s motives and psychology.
Dramatically, this is an unbalanced play. Although Solomon is its great comic creation, he hardly appears in the second half. That is devoted instead to the two middle-aged brothers whose hoard of family furniture Solomon has been asked to value.
Victor (Brendan Coyle) is a beat policeman whose wife (Sara Stewart) craves money. Victor’s younger brother Walter (Adrian Lukis) is a rich doctor.
Miller makes his usual case against money. Was Victor’s life ruined when sly Walter refused to give him $500 to go to college 28 years ago? In Miller-land, one false move in capitalist America splatts you for ever. Tough luck, sucker!
I can’t abide the pessimism in Miller, but actors love the swells and dips his characters must endure. And the acting is the reason to see this transfer from Bath.
Suchet is the stage actor of his generation. He scintillates.
The week’s second Miller opening was at the Old Vic, which has exhumed ‘Windy’s’ rambling 1980 effort The American Clock.
It is not so much a play as a series of documentary scenes sketching hardship in the Great Depression.
Reviewing a performance of The American Clock, he said it is not so much a play as a series of documentary scenes sketching hardship in the Great Depression
On to this he cobbles some platitudes about 20th-century U.S. politics, the whole thing ending with Neil Armstrong’s words after the Moon landing.
Rachel Chavkin’s over-busy, clunkingly right-on production lasts three preachy hours. Long before the end I wondered if the crock — sorry, the clock — had stopped working. Would the evening ever end?
It is staged in the round, which is not easy on the Old Vic’s high stage and necessitates near-carousel use of the revolve.
Things start with a chirpy live jazz band and an efficient depiction of the 1929 Wall Street crash, when guttering rain washes out the chalked stock prices from the pre-crash boom.
Veteran Clarke Peters brings some focus, Golda Rosheuvel sings strongly and Francesca Mills skips about showing flashes of life.
But the project is scuppered by Miller’s indecison. Should he spin his Leftist polemic via a single family, the ruined Baums, or does their East-coast, relatively safe existence need something edgier from elsewhere? One moment we are with a penniless sheriff in Louisiana, the next with a farm mob in Iowa.
Throw in a tap-dancing industrialist, dream sequences from a waltz marathon and it all becomes a bit mad, not least because three sets of actors are used to play the Baums.
Thud thud thud goes Miller’s political message that Roosevelt’s New Deal was saintly and that American corporatism is evil. Whizzzz goes the revolve. Yawn goes the audience.
(Ustinov Studio, Bath)
Verdict: Spellbinding personal quest
Most new American plays I’ve seen recently are more concerned with falling in line with political correctness than breaking new ground.
This is emphatically not the case in Tanya Barfield’s visceral, thoughtful, humorous and elegiac drama about what it means to be a black man in modern America.
Her story from 2006 is about a middle-aged mathematician called Lewis whose white wife leaves him after 25 years of marriage. Played by Ray Fearon in exceptional form, Lewis is desperate to forget his ethnicity.
But to make sure this doesn’t happen, Fehinti Balogun plays a variety of ghosts reminding Lewis of the scars slavery has left on him and his family. The extraordinary thing about Balogun is that for all the pain and horror he reports, his dead characters brim with life.
Nor does Barfield shy away from whopping themes in a play that questions the existence of time, challenges the efficacy of political engagement and asks whether freedom even exists — all in just 90 minutes.
On the question of race, she asks whether her characters are black because of their genes, their history or because people see them that way.
And the blue door of the title refers to a ritual of self-protection, keeping good spirits in and bad spirits out.
But the really remarkable thing is that Barfield’s play, and Eleanor Rhode’s production, skip effortlessly through these heavyweight matters. Madeleine Girling’s set is little more than wood chippings, an overhead light bulb and a dark, imprisoning forest of trees.
On this, Fearon embodies the academic with remarkable intensity as he grapples with his conscience on a journey through rage, self-loathing and pathos, before eventually finding some peace.
Balogun, meanwhile, leads Lewis into a personal purgatory, transfixing us with myriad characters including a great-grandfather whose mother and wife are sold at auction on the shocking whim of their owners.
Amazingly, he turns his role into a kind of cabaret act, often singing the blues and dancing, face split by a broad smile.
What could be simply unbearable in its horror, and recriminatory in its tone, is moving, thoughtful, humorous and spellbinding.