Review - Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre

Death of a Salesman
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Tuesday, 05 November, 2019
Review by: 

I previously welcomed this ferociously fine revival of Arthur Miller's 1949 Pulitzer and Tony-winning play when it originally opened at the Young Vic in May - and now that it has deservedly transferred to the West End's much larger Piccadilly Theatre, which has more the double the number of seats, it's worth seeing all over again if you've already seen it. And there's no excuse to miss it if you've not; but hurry: it's only here for eight weeks.

This is a play of epic stature, and it receives a production to match it in every regard. Even if some of the former intimacy of the Young Vic is inevitably lost, the production and the actors actually scale up impressively to achieve new heights of emotional connection.

The dreamy intensity of the landscape of Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's poetic and powerful production feels amplified in the larger space; this story of a man gradually utterly crushed by the changing circumstances of his professional and family life is even bigger and more heartbreaking now. As the production switches effortlessly from the naturalistic present to a painfully recalled past, it reverberates with feeling, grief and pain.  

That's partly a testament to how Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke now totally inhabit the riveting central roles of Willy Loman and his ever-loyal wife Linda; both were brilliant before, but the crumbling desperation and eager warmth they embody feels even more crushingly truthful. They've lived with the roles longer - and it feels like there's less acting now, more a sense of total being.

The role of Willy Loman may be the King Lear of modern American drama, as we watch a man finally waking up to his own large failings. Pierce brings a gradually dawning terror to him that is painful to watch. And Clarke - long one of the secret weapons of the London musical theatre and dramatic stage - comes into her own with a toweringly sympathetic but also completely unsentimental performance as Linda. As in her performance in the musical Caroline, or Change that she will take to Broadway next year, she is both heartbreaking and resolutely dignified.

Half the former Young Vic cast have been replaced for this run; amongst the newcomers, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Natey Jones give beautifully nuanced performances as Willy and Linda's two sons.

The big "sell" (or innovation) of this production when it first opened at the Young Vic was its casting of the family as African-American; but though there are interesting new textures and tensions that arise out of this (like the fact that when the sons take their father for a meal at a 6th Avenue steakhouse they are shown to a table at the back, ostensibly for privacy reasons), it in fact feels like an irrelevance on a second viewing. It's just an all-out brilliant production; one of the very best I've ever seen of this forever-brilliant play.

Death of a Salesman is at the Piccadilly Theatre until 4th January. 

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