Of the current and forthcoming productions of Arthur Miller plays in London, this piece from 1980 may count as the oddest and perhaps the most personal. The play gives an outline of The Great Depression, based on the work of oral historian Studs Terkel. And with much of the action focusing on a young man, similar in age and ambition to Miller in the early 1930s – whose family loses its money just as his did – it’s hard not to see it as an autobiographical fragment. Unfortunately, as a trip into the past it’s too potted. And as analysis of events it’s too pedestrian. That American optimism is relentless is rammed home, but doing so brings monotony. And while the idea of an American political left that challenges corporations might be intriguing, it has clearly been consigned to history. It all makes for a text that’s both slim and slow.
With an episodic structure and presentation that includes song and dance An American Clock still intrigues and the work of director Rachel Chavkin is strong. Making the lack of plot a virtue, the central family is played in triplicate: there are three sets of once wealthy mothers and struggling fathers, while a trio of sons grow up and start careers. It’s a neat way of showing the universalism of the economic disaster and is staged superbly – the device works to make the large ensemble cast really stand out. Clare Burt and Amber Aga both excel as the mother Rose while Golda Rosheuvel becomes the star by also punctuating scenes with a powerful singing voice. James Garnon has most time in the role of the father, and leaves the biggest impression, while three youngsters performing as the son Lee – Fred Haig, Jyuddah Jaymes and Taheen Modak – all impress. Worried about losing track? Thankfully, Clarke Peters is on board as the show’s narrator to make everything smooth. Few actors could make a story this predictable still entertaining and Peters is, as ever, superb.
Miller renamed the play a Vaudeville piece after its flop on Broadway. Chavkin embraces this by ensuring her production has variety, fun and also rhythm. There are songs throughout and the choreography from Ann Yee is excellent, not least in taking into account that the cast are not dancers. It’s a good way to inject much needed energy; Ewan Wardrop’s tap-dancing CEO proves a real highlight. The music makes points – a manic lust for money and then panic with the Stock Market crash – while complementing the sketch-like quality of the play itself. With the motif of marathon dancing competitions that runs throughout the play, Chavkin’s vision is clear, akin to a live Reginald Marsh painting, but the scenes themselves amount to little, feeling anecdotal or didactic. It’s Chavkin’s skill to weave them together so skilfully – and it’s easy to see why she is one to watch. Still, this play isn’t one to give time to.
This lavish production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is a triumph for director Dominic Cooke. This is a piece that divides opinion. While its songs have gained fame, the rambling story of past lives, set around a reunion of former Broadway performers, has too slender a book by James Goldman. But in Cooke’s hands this feast of melancholic nostalgia is coherent and compelling. With no small help from the Olivier’s revolve, a static story is made to at least feel dynamic. The tone is serious, suitably so, with any camp fiercely controlled. The cast is huge, the orchestra lush and Vicki Mortimer’s design will surely garner her an award for the costumes alone. The ‘ghosts’ of lives past appear with a gorgeous array of headgear, while the late 1960s costumes of those meeting one last time before a theatre is demolished are just as meticulous and impressive.
Follies provides the irony of performers at the top of their game pretending that their careers are over. Imelda Staunton continues her reign as Queen of Musicals by playing Sally and is matched by Janie Dee as Phyllis. The women performed and dated together but have ended up in sad marriages with the wrong men. Sharing their unhappiness are the husbands, Ben and Buddy, brilliantly performed by Philip Quast and Peter Forbes respectively. The women have the stronger numbers. Staunton delivers the hit Losing My Mind impeccably and her hysterical devotion to the man who got away manages against all odds to be convincing. Dee is the wicked witch of the piece, getting the laughs and showing the emptiness of her character’s successful life with pathos. But of all the mid-to-late-life crisis on offer here (and there’s plenty of it) Phyllis is the only one that entertains. There’s young talent in the show, too: Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig both do well as the immature versions of the men but, while Zizi Strallen and Alex Young ably perform their roles as the younger women, the parts themselves are frustratingly thinly written.
Given its size, Follies is a major investment to stage – a concert production was my only experience so expectations were high. To say this isn’t Sondheim’s best work still makes it head and shoulders above most musicals. But some of the lyrics are strangely flat and a couple of numbers, which take us back the early days of Broadway, of primarily academic interest. It’s the book that causes most problems – much of the show is a series of introductions – that fail to excite – about characters not met again. It’s a poor build up to a prolonged conclusion – the central quartet’s individual “follies” numbers that feel like ground already trodden. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to truly engage and the characters’ angst start to look like whinging. Musicals can cover serious topics – nobody proves that better than Sondheim – but here we just have a collection of personal crises that ends up dispiriting.