Director Rachel Chavkin has been bold in her re-imagining of Arthur Miller’s lesser known play about the 1930’s American depression. It was a flop on Broadway when it first opened in 1980 and slightly more successful at the National in 1986 where the vaudeville notion was conceived. Chavkin (who directed ‘Hadestown’ at the National recently) has run with the vaudeville idea again in her ensemble driven production where dance and music brightens the grim reality of Miller’s drama.

The fabulous on-stage band sets the thirties scene with Clarke Peters taking on an MC role and the audience sitting both sides of the stage (giving half of us a wonderful view of the Old Vic’s ornate balconies). As the show progresses, the Lindy Hop and the great American song-book are mixed with contemporary beats that seem to warn of imminent disaster. Choreography from Ann Yee draws out the idea of the cast ‘sleep-walking’ into a financial crisis. Comparisons might well be made with our approach to Brexit…

It’s not one of Miller’s easiest plays, driven by ideas about the dangers of capitalism and giant corporations. To avoid feeling like a series of vignettes depicting the impact of the depression it really relies on the central narrative of the Baum family to hold it together. They are a wealthy Jewish family with an artistic son, regarded as being fairly similar to Miller’s own whose comfortable lives were suddenly swept away in the light of the financial crisis. Chavkins’ boldest idea is to triple the Baum family so that there are three sets of actors taking on different scenes before returning to the ensemble. She’s cast them so that they shift from being a white Jewish family, to South Asian and finally African American. The idea of ‘layering’ families may well reveal the timelessness of the play but it also has adverse affect of further fragmenting the narrative. This family could be the heart of the story but instead they become just another piece of the puzzle.

There are still many great scenes within the family and fascinating stories in the vignettes around the country. In Mississippi, a black café owner exchanges his first radio for some fried chicken from a previous affluent white local and remarks, ‘The main thing about the depression is that it finally hit the white people’ and a judge is nearly lynched by locals when he tries to auction off farms. Long after the rise of big corporations, we are still asking the same questions as Millers’ characters, ‘How do you keep everything that’s big from swallowing everything that’s small?’ Yet for all the despair, this is a play full of characters that burst with life and determination in the face of disaster. Apart from the ones that jump out buildings, of course.

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