Review: All My Sons (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

Arthur Miller’s classic tragedy is revived by director Michael Rudman

However much you like experiment and austerity, there’s something enormously comforting about walking into a theatre and being confronted by a huge and realistic set of a house. In this case, an American suburban villa, surrounded by trees, and fronted by grass, beautifully designed by Michael Taylor.

But there’s nothing remotely comfortable about Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, a great howl of rage that takes us behind that façade of middle-class respectability to reveal the moral bankruptcy of its genial owner, Joe Keller, a man who made his money out of profiteering in the war, killing young pilots by allowing faulty cylinder heads for planes to leave his factory – and claiming he did it all for his son.

It is – as a production by the late, great Howard Davies so memorably showed – a play about the disintegration of a family under the weight of its own lies, and a wider warning about the dangers of a society building itself on an illusion of goodness. Shaped like a Greek tragedy, with an ominous unity of time and place, it grips like a vice as its revelations unpack.

I saw this version, directed with delicate care by Michael Rudman, in its final preview, when it hadn’t perhaps reached the boiling point of agony that it really requires. It was instead good on creating the patterns of family life, the way that even George, a man who arrives on the scene like an unexploded bomb, swearing vengeance, can be seduced by the easy rhythms of a familiar and much-loved way of life.

Oddly, though it usually plays as a drama of father and sons – one alive, one lost in the war – here the women made the greatest impact. Penny Downie turns Kate Keller into a more pragmatic relation of one of Eugene O’Neill‘s anguished mothers, almost trance-like in her refusal to acknowledge the death of her son, missing in action.

Her confrontations with his fiancée Ann, who wants to move on from the past and marry brother Chris, are all the more searing because Francesca Zoutewelle finds such pain and loneliness in the fate of a girl whose life has been utterly blighted by the actions of those around her. In contrast, the relationship between Chris (Alex Waldmann) and his father Joe are slightly muted partly because Waldmann can’t get beyond Chris’ saintly passivity to find the turmoil beneath.

As Joe, David Horovitch adopts a marvellous weaving gait, constantly shifting the balance of his weight like a boxer always ready for a fight, as if to suggest the moral equivalence of the man and his constant wariness. His cry when he realises what he has done to "all my sons" is unbearably moving; he lacks the pain and rage he is hiding. It is a performance of great finesse but not quite enough power.

Still, by the close, you could hear a pin drop as the story unfolds in all its horrifying bleakness, and a world and a family are destroyed from within. What a great play.

All My Sons runs at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 19 November.