All My Sons (Manchester)

For those who doubted whether this concept would work, Michael Buffong’s All My Sons at the Royal Exchange is stunning, says Dave Cunningham.

Don Warrington & Dona Croll
Don Warrington & Dona Croll
© Jonathan Keenan

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The ideals of Chris Keller (Chike Okonkwo) are under strain. Returning from the Second World War, he hopes to marry his late brother's girlfriend but finds that his mother Kate (Dona Croll) is unable to accept that his brother died in the war. Worse is to come as doubts arise about whether his father Joe (Don Warrington) is really innocent of involvement in a wartime scandal that resulted in tragedy.

Although director Michael Buffong has assembled an exceptional all-black cast, racism is not one of the themes explored in his production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Buffong subtly expands the themes to include the corrosive consequences of failing to adhere to ideals and the corrupting effect of compromise. He also raises doubts as to whether looking after one's family is sufficient to justify damaging the wider society.

These themes are reflected in a stunning performance from Dona Croll as Kate Keller. The perception and intelligence Croll brings to the role makes Kate far more than a mentally frail mother; in fact, she seems to be slyly using her apparent illness to manipulate her family.

This talented actress makes you wonder just how far Kate was complicit in the scandal. In a marvellous sequence, Kate subtly undermines the confidence of one of Joe's accusers, leaving him vulnerable to her husband's easy charm.

Chike Okonkwo portrays Chris both as an everyman and a classic hero; holding onto his beliefs in accepting the consequences for one's actions. Unlike his compromised father, Chris has the moral courage to accept that sometimes the needs of the wider society should take precedence over those of the family. But Okonkwo shows the terrific internal struggle that Chris goes through before reaching this decision.

Don Warrington's Joe Keller, on the other hand, is an exercise in moral duplicity. He simply does not understand that there is such a thing as a wider responsibility and the actor brings out the nasty sense that Joe really believes that his actions were correct. This stoic and angry man justifies his actions with a range of examples of people who behaved in the same manner as him but feels no connection to the community in which they all reside. It is a brave interpretation of an isolated character. Although Warrington cannot make Joe sympathetic, he does make you wonder if, in the same circumstances, you would have behaved differently.

The success of the production depends largely on the warm family atmosphere created by Buffong. Ellen Cairns' clean–cut set and garden, dappled in sunlight, looks ideal for an all- American family gathering. Buffong sets a seductive mood full of good hearted humour that makes the lifestyle of the Keller family irresistible, so that you can appreciate why Joe would consider committing a terrible act to preserve his family.

For those who doubted whether this concept would work, Buffong's All My Sons is stunning.

– Dave Cunningham