It was once said that “cover-up” is the great theme of American drama, and Miller’s 1947 play, which established his reputation and is now hailed by some – David Mamet, for instance – as his true masterpiece, contains the mother of all cover-ups. Joe was an ambitious manufacturer of household and industrial goods in the war – including a batch of faulty cylinder heads that caused the death of 21 pilots. Did he know about the fault before shipment?
One of the war dead is his own son but, of course, they are all his sons really. Joe’s business partner took the rap and is still serving a prison sentence, while the partner’s daughter, Ann Deever, is about to marry Joe’s second son, Chris. But when Ann’s lawyer brother turns up with yet more damning evidence, a blot of shame spreads unstoppably through the household.
The anxiety that all of our families shared during the last war, and some still do today, has never been better expressed. Wanamaker, her long face taut as a mask, her voice cracked with pent-up emotion, simply cannot countenance the fact that Larry has gone. And, as in the NT Cottesloe, Davies establishes a tragic tone with an invented prologue of the wind howling through William Dudley’s densely forested garden.
The Cottesloe version was a traverse production, and Julie Walters inflected Kate’s grief through her own smart brand of sly humour. There’s no such equivocation with Wanamaker, who’s wringing our withers before she even opens her mouth. Joe on that occasion was the late James Hazeldine and he was, in the best sense, an ordinary Joe, the small businessman making good in the new market place of pressure cookers and washing machines.
Suchet brings much more weight, as well as shiftiness, to the role, and the evening winds up with a tension that’s almost unbearable. For this really is the shattering of the American dream. The crux of it all is the outstanding performance of Stephen Campbell Moore as the second son, who becomes the transparent conscience of the play, and he’s brilliantly partnered by Jemima Rooper as the hopeful but finally devastated fiancée.