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Review Round-up: More Luck for Rare Miller Play

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More than 50 years after it first premiered, Arthur Miller’s play The Man Who Had All the Luck may have found its own overdue luck with the critics, thanks to the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of the rarely seen play, which opened last night (5 March 2008, previews from 28 February). It continues until 5 April at the Covent Garden venue and then tours to Manchester, Liverpool and Truro in Cornwall.

In the American mid-West, David Beeves is a young car mechanic blessed – or cursed? - with almost supernatural good fortune. While those around him suffer life’s regular blows, everything goes David’s way. At the Donmar Warehouse, Andrew Buchan stars in Sean Holmes’ production

The Man Who Had All the Luck was Miller’s first Broadway play, but when it opened in 1944, it closed after only four performances. Following the failure of the play, which was based on an earlier repeatedly rejected novel, the discouraged author, then in his twenties, vowed that he would never write another play. Fortunately, he didn’t stick to that vow and his subsequent efforts within the next five years - All My Sons and Death of a Salesman - achieved much greater success.

First night critics at the Donmar were somewhat mystified as to why Miller’s play was such a flop first time round. Though they identified an inevitable immaturity to the writing, they were also fascinated by its portent of things to come in the playwright’s later works. The piece is well served by Sean Holmes’ “riveting” and “invigorating” production, led by the “fresh-faced” if occasionally “placid” Andrew Buchan. As Beeves’ more luckless relatives, Michelle Terry, Felix Scott and Nigel Cooke’s performances are also “urgent and persuasive”. Altogether, the production helps unearth a Miller that, while “minor” is nonetheless “intriguing”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Sean Holmes’ riveting and super-charged revival is the third in Britain … 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’ cast rides them like bronco bucks, especially Michelle Terry who is really outstanding as David’s wife Hester … Andrew Buchan’s likeably passive and good-natured David takes everything as it comes … 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.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Dramatic heroes are traditionally dogged by misfortune. But Arthur Miller, in this rarely-seen 1944 play, had the bright idea of writing about a man cursed by good luck. And, although it is intriguing for its intimations of later, greater Miller, it is striking how well it survives independently in Sean Holmes' invigorating revival … Through the narrative twists and turns, Miller is expressing his core philosophical belief: that a man has to take moral responsibility for his own life. Holmes' production, nicely pitched between reality and dream, is also very well acted. Andrew Buchan as David moves plausibly from youthful exuberance to mental disintegration under the curse of undeserved fortune while still convincing you the hero is a good man … But the pleasure of the evening lies in recognising the inherent quality while acknowledging the technical flaws. Even if the carpentry is visible, you can feel Miller exploring the theatrical terrain he was to make uniquely his own.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “In Sean Holmes' dynamically charged production of Miller's first, rarely-revived, Broadway play, a work of confident immaturity, you witness a neurotic young garage owner, David Beeves, the balance of whose mind is disturbed by a surfeit of luck. Miller proposes it's absurd to live in wait for catastrophe and best to shape your own destiny … There is, though, an interesting vein of comic irony running through this fable-like play and which Holmes sometimes neglects. Good luck just will not leave Beeves alone … Andrew Buchan's Beeves maintains an air of bemused grace as fate rains down the blows of success upon him … It is difficult to be riveted by relentless outbursts of good fortune. Holmes' production, though he achieves high-wire tension in the scene of childbirth, stirs serious emotion only once. David's brother, Felix Scott's impressive Amos, whose life has been dedicated to becoming a professional baseball player, discovers his father's training has wrecked his chances. Scott weeps authentic tears and collapses - epitome of a man not controlling his own life. This is minor but intriguing Miller.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “In Sean Holmes' sincere and strongly committed revival at the Donmar, the play emerges as an intermittently powerful but awkward attempt to create a drama with myth-like elements (Miller aptly described it as ‘the obverse of the Book of Job’) … The fresh-faced, boyish Andrew Buchan plays David Beeves, a self-taught young car mechanic who, apparently as a result of a series of lucky flukes, gets the girl, the garage, the land, and the mink-breeding business. His unbroken run of good fortune is in sharp contrast to the blows suffered by others. Indeed, the most moving section of the play is the one that looks forward, in its focus on competitive siblings and paternal betrayal, to later Miller works such as All My Sons and Death of a Salesman … The play is a parable about the need to take personal responsibility. But the placid Buchan never seems sufficiently unhinged by the blessings that fall like blows and the play, which has its stodgy and laboriously explicit patches and is too evenly paced and repetitive, fails to develop a rhythm that might intensify our sense of his isolating nightmare.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Watching this rare revival, it is hard to understand why the piece was such a failure. It isn't in the same league as Miller's masterpieces, but Sean Holmes' fine production grips from the start and never lets go. Like so much of Miller's work, what initially appears to be a piece of slice-of-life naturalism also works powerfully as a moral fable, and the drama anticipates many of the dramatist's later themes, most significantly the vexed relationship between fathers and their sons … The great virtue of Holmes' production is that it puts flesh and blood on what might easily seem a glib little fable, so that you become engrossed in both plot and characters. Andrew Buchan's fresh-faced everyman hero manages to make the curse of good luck seem persuasive, Nigel Cooke has just the right twitchy, monomaniacal intensity as the father, while Felix Scott's howling anguish over his failed baseball career has a harrowing intensity. But there isn't a single weak performance in this fascinating play about the burning human need for a sense of justice in the universe.”

    - by Terri Paddock

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