One of the great pleasures of the summer theatre season in London can also be the source of its greatest anxiety: what will the weather be like for the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park? It turns us all into amateur meteorologists, but there's one thing we know for sure: we can't depend on the professionals. I checked various weather sites ahead of the opening night of this year's first production, and all gave conflicting information. And then, within the opening moments of the play, I heard this exchange:
Joe Keller: Gonna rain tonight.
Dr Jim Bayliss: Paper says so?
Joe Keller: Yeah, right here.
Dr Jim Bayliss: Then it can't rain.
Perhaps that was a weather blessing of a kind, because it turned out that Jim was right (and the BBC Weather site was wrong). The rain held off, despite threatening grey clouds hanging over the capital all day. But this is a theatre review, not a weather report, so what of the stage temperature rather than the environmental one?
Arthur Miller's 1947 masterpiece should be a scorching experience and so, thanks to a set of fine actors, it eventually proves to be once again here. But they have to battle not just the elements here but a production that initially at least puts them at a distance from us.
The Open Air Theatre isn't a venue that lends itself naturally to intimacy; it's a wide open space whose ceiling is the sky and whose wings dissolve into shrubbery and grass. But if that might be appropriate for a play that is itself set entirely outdoors in the backyard of the Keller family home, director Timothy Sheader and his designer Lizzie Clachan strangely impose a non-naturalistic aesthetic to the look of it, with a drawn cartoon representation of a family home behind the yard which is an elevated platform. It floats above a tangle of roots that expressively jut out from under the stage, representing the tree that was planted in the memory of the family's missing son Larry.
This is, after all, a play with deep family roots but also betrayals that, just as the tree is symbolically destroyed the night before the play starts, will themselves dramatically unravel.
The production has other distractions, too, including somewhat aggressive miking of the actors (perhaps inevitable in this outdoor space to allow those in its upper reaches to hear), an occasionally intrusive soundtrack, and a bizarre moment when lots of extras briefly flood the stage.
Nevertheless, as darkness arrives, the production gathers both intimacy and intensity, and a really fine cast come into their own. There is a performance of achingly tender and haunting beauty from Brid Brennan as the mother Kate, with Tom Mannion as her haunted husband and Charles Aitken as their surviving son. Also superb are Amy Nuttall and Andy McKeane as two siblings who used to live next door and whose father used to work with Joe.
The play was last revived in the West End just four years ago in a production that starred David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker, but it is always worth seeing again. In a year that has already brought us the revelatory production of A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, here's another persuasive example of Miller's dramatic genius.
"It is not the shattering evening that this play can be. But it effectively exposes Miller’s bitter theme of man’s ability to betray his fellow in a crisis."
Serena Davies for The Daily Telegraph
"This production doesn't quite hit home, but intensifies as night falls, speaking its reproachful truths under a minatory rustle of leaves."
David Jays for The Guardian
"Timothy Sheader’s solid production lacks a piercing primal intensity, and some of its gestures (such as a glimpse of the 21 dead airmen) compromise its grandeur rather than enriching it."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard