No Villain (Old Red Lion)

Arthur Miller’s first ever play receives its world premiere

When it comes to towering, legendary American playwright Arthur Miller, we thought we knew the list: A View from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible – it goes on. But, it turns out, there was one missing: No Villain.

Director Sean Turner has dug out Miller’s very first play – written for a playwriting competition in 1936 – from a library in the US somewhere and put it on stage in the tiny north London fringe theatre the Old Red Lion for its world premiere. Could it be he has discovered yet another Miller gem?

The answer to that is both yes and no. No because it’s not a Miller play in the same way that, say, The Crucible or All My Sons is a Miller play. Written when the Harlem-born writer was still at university, it lacks the playwright’s ability to bore into the intensity of a tragedy. It lacks his concise, beautifully layered dialogue and his strengths at building up the tension in a story that any watcher can relate to.

But it’s also yes because in No Villain you can quite clearly see the beginnings of what Miller would go on to write. Concerned with one New York family that are struggling under a moral dilemma, the play is a scatty and slightly repetitive look at whether you can ever be a true communist in a capitalist country like America.

Abe is not the businessman he once was. His family live together in a shabby, small house and his wife laments that they aren’t rich anymore. As son Arnold returns from university, there’s hope he might help his older brother and father in the coat business. But there are strikes city-wide that are causing their factory to slowly implode and Arnold won’t, he tells his brother, be a scab. He has come back from university a communist. But where Arnold refuses to break the strike, Ben, the one who hasn’t been off to study, is also a Marxist. He, however, recognises the need to keep the business going – it’s either that or their family falls apart.

It’s a startlingly autobiographical play – Miller came from a family that ran a garment company in New York that lost everything, he went to university and came back torn over his communist ideals. And it’s given a moodily sumptuous production from Turner, designed ingeniously for the small space. There’s a sense of the claustrophobia of their world, of the walls closing in, from Max Dorey’s designs. Turner's use of quiet jazz and low lights skillfully makes this production feel as though there's a heavy storm brewing. The cast are uneven, with one or two very OTT turns, but George Turvey is excellent as the tortured Ben who leads the family through a darkness and out into the light of hope.

This is by no means a masterpiece, and who knows if Miller would have ever been happy that someone has dragged it out of hiding. But for anyone interested in one of the greatest playwrights of our age, I’d say it’s an invaluable find.

No Villain runs at the Old Red Lion until 9 January.