Arthur Miller’s fascinating early play The Man Who Had All the Luck lasted for only four performances on Broadway in 1944 but survives as a key play in the history of American drama, a play of post-War aspiration in a land of dreams and possibility.
Sean Holmes’s riveting and super-charged revival for the Donmar Warehouse is the third in Britain; Iain Glen starred in Paul Unwin’s glowingly picturesque Bristol Old Vic British premiere in 1980 and Michael Grandage presented David Hunt’s production at the end of his Sheffield Crucible tenure in 2001.
The story of David Beeves, a garage hand in a small mid-Western town who succeeds effortlessly as an agriculturalist, shop and quarry owner and mink farmer, has a rambling, novelistic feel to it, as Miller was still wavering between theatre and fiction.
This lends the play an uncertain, dream-like and fragmentary quality that now seems psychologically modern, even experimental. Everything goes David’s way to such an extent he begins to anticipate disaster. Although Miller revised the play’s ending in 1986 – David now committed suicide – the Donmar sticks to the original version.
There are some drastic narrative upheavals in the last two acts, but Holmes’s cast rides them like bronco bucks, especially Michelle Terry who is really outstanding as David’s wife Hester, whose baby nearly precipitates a domestic catastrophe but who pulls back from leaving home to start over again with almost impossible fervour and devotion.
Paul Wills’s impressive design of boards and beams – beautifully lit by Paule Constable – fully conveys the small town atmosphere of various domestic and garage locations. Once Hester’s cantankerous father (Roy Sampson) is fortuitously run over by the wealthy mink farmer (James Hayes), David meets a repair deadline in the garage thanks to the chance arrival of a passing Austrian (Shaun Dingwall) in the middle of the night. How weird is all that?
A magnificent vintage saloon car with a cream chassis and chocolate mudguards flies in as unexpectedly as the latest plot development. While Andrew Buchan’s likeably passive and good-natured David takes everything as it comes, his crusty old Dad (Nigel Cooke) dreams of the day when his second son Amos (Felix Scott) becomes a baseball star.
Here we see signs of Miller the author of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, and the electricity really starts to flow when a talent scout (Gary Lilburn) drops by to shatter a few dreams and drive old Dad back on the road in search of his job as a ship’s cook.
Mark Lewis Jones as an expansive, drunken neighbour, Aidan Kelly as a bitter war veteran with a secret, and Sandra Voe as sweet old Aunt Belle, flesh out other areas of domestic tension. The playing is altogether urgent and persuasive and bodes well not only for the Donmar run but also for the tour next month to Salford, Liverpool and Truro.