×

London Theater Review: ‘All My Sons’ With Sally Field, Bill Pullman

An enduring American dream: Arthur Miller's early play becomes a study of suburban America with Field and Pullman leading the cast.

With:
Archie Barnes, Theo Boyce, Bessie Carter, Gunnar Cauthery, Jenna Coleman, Hari Coles, Sally Field, Oliver Johnstone, Kayla Meikle, Colin Morgan, Bill Pullman, Ruth Redman, Sule Rimi, Alfie Todd, Russell Wilcox.

2 hours 25 minutes

If “All My Sons” is showing its age, it sure shows no signs of abating. Just days after a major revival opened on Broadway, moving Annette Bening and Tracy Letts into the Tony zone, up the play pops in London. The Old Vic has arguably secured the starrier cast, too: Bill Pullman and Sally Field play the Kellers as a couple coming apart from the start. But Arthur Miller plays differently away from home, and, in stretching to say something of national significance, Jeremy Herrin’s staging forgets to cover up the play’s cracks. It should hit like a hurricane, but here it’s hard work: all huff and puff.

Written in 1947, Miller’s play was both timeless and of its own time. Scarcely two years after WWII, it turned an all-too-familiar situation — a family riven by recent grief — into a classical tragedy. Just as Oedipus was doomed to bed down with his mum, so Joe Keller’s culpability is bound to catch up with him. Having shipped defective hardware to the U.S. armed forces, causing the deaths of 21 airmen, he watches his wife Kate hold out hope for their own pilot son, missing in action but never declared dead. Their fate is pretty much prefigured from the start and, as the situation slowly unfurls, it should bear down on Joe like an unstoppable force. Miller, effectively, dropped an Aristotelean bombshell into modern America.

Herrin, however, turns to another sort of timelessness. Flickering into life with a film of a flag flapping in the breeze, stars and stripes rippling against a summery sky, his production asks whether America has significantly changed in the 72 years since. Duncan McLean’s ghostly opening sequence channel-hops from retro home movies on well-cut lawns to drive-by panning shots of fresh green trees and recently built wooden homes. It sets up this suburban lifestyle as something steadfast and stubborn: an enduring American dream, the same today as it was post-WWII. The target, then, is conservatism, even nostalgia and, in a neat trick, the Keller’s family home materializes out of the film like a memory or a mirage — the image of Middle America made flesh.

It is, in Max Jones’ design, almost too picture perfect. A white picket fence runs round a lush little garden. Four healthy poplars stand straight as soldiers and an old wicker sofa stretches out on the lawn. It is also, somehow, just a little off, a tad too contemporary to be entirely credible. The turquoise exterior is just a bit too tasteful; the planting is almost postmodern in its avoidance of anything too trim and twee. As for Joe Keller, he could equally blend in today. With his grey checked shirt open and an unruffled air, Pullman plays him casual as a Californian — hands in his pockets, a smile on his lips; all that’s missing is a beer in his hand. He’s a long way from the old-school patriarch, but something of this “man among men” persists.

That timelessness tunes you into the text anew. You clock every mention of how little has changed since the war and spot the way the family home is portrayed as a jail — the white blinds in its windows half-open like bars. Mostly, though, you see a self-replicating social order; the way one generation morphs, slowly, into the last. Colin Morgan captures the servility of survivor’s guilt as the Keller’s second son Chris, letting his voice drop as his initial idealism gives way to his father’s pragmatism, while Jenna Coleman’s breezy Ann loses her sunny demeanor to become as old-fashioned as Field’s Kate. Their inceptive relationship is stilted enough to suggest more determination to start a family than desire.

Everything’s surface, and Pullman plays Joe as a man putting on a show too: his laid-back bonhomie concealing the guilt below. If he opens up his backyard and jokes with his neighbors, it’s more about maintaining social standing and, with it, success, than the other way around — enjoying the fruits with real friends. He seems to have gotten smaller, too, hiding behind humor as if he’s aware it could all so easily come crashing down. When he dresses for dinner, he scrubs up to look presidential, but the thing about keeping up appearances is that a façade maintained can never mutate. This “man among men” becomes a model.

As Kate, Field is frayed from the beginning. As the play goes on, she seems to malfunction beneath the pressure to put on a public face without finding time to grieve. At times, Field just seems to judder. It is, in fact, an uncharacteristically overblown performance, especially opposite Pullman’s shambling, semi-mumbling turn.

It still resembles every “All My Sons” ever staged, though: a show in search of something substantially new to say and never quite bold enough to throw off its shape. Herrin’s production feels fresh from a factory line, albeit as defective as one of Joe Keller’s cracked cylinders. Miller’s play is so full of clunks and contrivances that it needs scuffing up. Too much here is too traditional: carefully blocked, lines on the beat, emotionally emphatic. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t quite fly.

Popular on Variety

London Theater Review: 'All My Sons' With Sally Field, Bill Pullman

Old Vic Theatre, London; 1067 seats; £65 ($85) top. Opened, reviewed April 23 2019. Running time: 2 HOURS 25 MINUTES

Production: An Old Vic and Headlong co-production of a play in two acts by Arthur Miller.

Creative: Directed by Jeremy Herrin; Design, Max Jones; lighting, Richard Howell; sound Carolyn Downing; Video, Duncan McLean

Cast: Archie Barnes, Theo Boyce, Bessie Carter, Gunnar Cauthery, Jenna Coleman, Hari Coles, Sally Field, Oliver Johnstone, Kayla Meikle, Colin Morgan, Bill Pullman, Ruth Redman, Sule Rimi, Alfie Todd, Russell Wilcox.

More Legit

  • Broadway-Breakfast-Split

    Variety to Celebrate Second Business of Broadway Breakfast With Thomas Schumacher, Diane Paulus and Diablo Cody

    Variety has announced the lineup for its second annual Business of Broadway breakfast presented by City National Bank. Joining the breakfast on Oct. 7 is the president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher, who will take part in the event’s keynote conversation. In his position, Thomas oversees the company’s worldwide stage productions, which [...]

  • Sue Wagner John Johnson

    Tony-Winning Producers Sue Wagner and John Johnson Announce New Venture, Wagner Johnson Productions

    Sue Wagner and John Johnson, seven-time Tony award-winning producers, announced Wednesday that they have embarked on a new theatrical business venture, Wagner Johnson Productions. Under the name, they will produce and general manage a wide scope of theater productions. One of Wagner Johnson Productions’ current projects is a musical rendition of “Almost Famous,” which will [...]

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s first appearance on the Great White Way since his 2014 performance in the revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” The five-year absence saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews TV Review: 'All Rise' Starring Simone Missick TV Review: The 71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content