Every ounce of heartbreaking poignancy is squeezed out of Arthur Miller’s tale of family tragedy in Howard Davies’s revival at the Apollo theatre.
It begins on a windy night when the overhanging willow trees on William Dudley’s set are tossed by a storm that causes a smaller tree to snap in half. Zoë Wanamaker’s Kate Keller, a lone figure in her own garden, looks on.
It is an evocative, ominous scene that indicates the tumultuous tale that is to come. The tree that snapped was planted by the Keller family in their backyard in memory of son Larry, a pilot who went missing in action during the Second World War. Kate cannot accept that he is dead, while her husband Joe and other son Chris urge her, after more than three years, to come to terms with his death and move on. But the arrival of Ann, Larry’s former sweetheart who Chris now wishes to marry, causes the events of the war to come back to haunt all of them.
Like any Miller play, All My Sons is about the pressure to achieve the American dream and the all too human flaws that prevent this perfect life from being attained. The Kellers are, on the surface, a regular American family, trying to get by, earn a living and make something of their lives. But David Suchet’s Joe shows the weakness, desperation and disregard for personal responsibility that mars their progress; a decision he made during the war, subsequently kept a secret from Chris, is to smash their dream into pieces when it is finally revealed.
The uniformly inspiring cast of Davies’s revival is led by Suchet and Wanamaker as the couple in denial about a devastating secret. Suchet plays Joe as a loving father whose surface geniality gives way to flashes of dark temper that hint at his desperation to hide his past. Wanamaker’s matriarchal Kate is forthright, impossible to contradict and stubbornly determined – at one point Joe says “I wear the trousers, she beats me with the belt” – yet she still manages to be vulnerable and touching; the pressure of keeping secrets and dealing with her son’s disappearance is taking its toll.
Stephen Campbell Moore’s Chris is frustrated at being unable to move on with his life. Unaware – or in denial – about the true facts of the past, he tries to force the matter by bringing Ann into the picture. And it is Ann (Jemima Rooper) who is a catalyst for the denouement of Miller’s play. She too is frustrated; a young girl hoping for a bright future but dragged back by previous events out of her control, she can only move forward if she explodes the myths of the past into the present, with shattering consequences for the Kellers.
It is typical Miller to create characters like these who have obvious flaws yet are so unwaveringly sympathetic. In Joe Keller, we recognise the hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses that are in every one of us, and his tragedy is one that could happen to us all.