The Price

  • Playwright Arthur Miller was a child of the great depression who witnessed his father’s business almost came to the brink of bankruptcy. Leaving school at the age of 17, unqualified and unable to afford university fees, he moved from one dead end job to another until in 1934 he was able to enter university, from there one thing led to another until he finally emerged as one of America’s leading playwrights.

    For Miller the defining moment in modern American history was not Vietnam, McCarthyism or any of the other madness that powerful nations inexplicably indulge in from time to time. The defining moment was the 1929 Wall Street crash and the Great Depression that followed. Here the American dream turned sour and there was no one to blame, in fact no one who quite understood at the time what was going on. The great depression affected every American of that generation and as Miller shows in his powerful drama ‘The Price’, for some the emotional and psychological costs lasted decades and across generations.

    The play tells of Victor, a New York cop who is arranging to sell the furniture that once belonged to his deceased father. He stands in his Dad’s apartment surrounded by memories of his youth and of the years he spent struggling supporting both his family and his widowed father. A decent kind-hearted man, Victor sacrificed his opportunity of an education and his dream of being a scientist in order to be a loving son.

    In the midst of negotiating an offer for his dad’s furniture his younger brother Walter arrives. As the two brothers shake hands one immediately senses the tension between them. For Victor the past has entered the room in the form of his younger brother and it is not long before accusations of neglect and callousness are soon being aired. The revealing of hearts and minds that follow threatens to undermine everything that Victor has sacrificed.

    The two brothers have had little contact since Walter left home as a youngster to train to be a doctor. Walter, had for all intents and purposes disowned his widowed father, and though he earned considerably more than Victor, he only sent $5 a month to help support his dad. As the brothers explain their decisions the spectre of their father looms ominously in the background, his empty presence denoted by the armchair that the two brothers constantly point to when speaking of the past.

    Each Brother has a different impression of the kind of person their father was. Victor believes his father was a vulnerable man shattered by the bankruptcy and the irrevocable breakdown of his wife, Walter believes his father was a manipulative bitter widower who was willing to sacrifice his sons in order to have some security in his old age. The post-mortem of family relationships that follows is cold and remorseless but Miller slices with such skill that each incision becomes more engrossing than the last. For either son to see their father differently would have painful consequences, their future only remains bearable if their view of the past remains constant.

    Victor’s wife Esther adds to the tension, embittered by the years of sacrifice she wants her life to improve. However, despite her disappointment with life, she remains loyal to the decent kind-hearted Victor with whom she has sacrificed so much.

    The further character in this drama is the 89-year-old Jewish man Solomon, who has been asked to appraise the father’s furniture. Solomon fills the stage with his warmth and jollity as he slowly charms Victor before finally making an offer for the furniture. In contrast to the family feud, here is a man who has lived through bankruptcy, the suicide of his daughter and more failed marriages than his age allows him to remember, and yet laughs to tell the tale, even if the laughter is tinged by sadness.

    All the actors perform well! Des McAleer as Walter acts contrite but also remote. Sian Thomas gives Esther the tone of an exasperated wife no longer able to contain her frustration with the noble sacrificial foolishness of her husband. Larry Lamb is superb as Victor, inexpressive, gentle yet able to explode with indignation. These three create the drama that keeps this play riveting, but it is Warren Mitchell who leaves the greater impression as Solomon. He has a natural comic genius that has you laughing even before he speaks. Even when all he does is eat a boiled egg, he is able to fill the auditorium with an infectious laughter. What family would not benefit by having Solomon has a grandfather!

    The stage design by Anthony Lamble captures the mood of the play. A dishevelled attic room of pealing wallpaper and full of old furniture that speaks of wealthier days. The prominence given to the dead father’s armchair tells you of his corrosive presence, and the large dining table reminds you that this was once a middle class successful family.

    Sean Holmes production is full of tension and humour. A definite must see!

    Alan Bird

    Next Review by Matthew Fay

    Sep 2003

    The theme of the Wall Street crash and The Depression runs like a river through Arthur Miller's work and his life. It surfaces in this play, a raging torrent, whose force buckles and distorts the lives of those who stand in it.

    The opening of the play presents us with the detritus of the historical meltdown of the Great Crash; an attic full of old furniture, floor to ceiling, belonging to the now-dead father of policeman Larry Lamb, and about to be autioned off for whatever it can fetch. The furniture, though old, is solid, built to last, not like the fashion-influenced furniture of the post-War period where Capitalism, as ever one of Miller's targets, entered its built-in obsolescene phase.

    The play offers us in Larry Lamb, a decent man who sacrificed his chances of a successful career to look after his ailing father in the wake of the Crash. On the verge of retrirement and reduced to selling off his father's possessions for money, he is both blue collar hero, and, for his loving wife, a man who missed the chance to provide them with the material success and security she wanted. Into this situation comes the cop's brother, played by Des MacAleer, a rich doctor, whose charm masks a guilt that he left the burden of looking after the father to his brother.

    The issue then is responsibility: the policeman took it, and his doctor brother ducked it to look after his own interests. But just when it seems that the play is one-sided, there is a twist: the policeman's father was no innocent but a cunning manipulator who exploited Larry Lamb in his long senescence. In addition in following his own star wasn't the doctor merely playing the game according to the rules? As he says: "were we brought up to believe in one another? We were brought up to succeed".

    Into this heavy Oedipal drama, Miller cleverly throws a delightful sprinkling of comedy in the form of the sprightly assessor Gregory Solomon (Warren Mitchell), a figure of almost archetypal liveliness for whom the horrors of life contain no more to fear. A survivor of divorce and a daughter's suicide, Solomon's relish at the prospect of taking on new stock is an antidote to the recriminations of the two brothers over their father. "All my life I've been a terrible fighter": he still hasn't given up, and at 89 is living for the present and future.

    This is a strong production with a solid set and memorable performances from Larry Lamb as the honourable cop and Sian Thomas as his frustrated wife. The conflict between the brothers rises to a satisfying climax, and Warren Mitchell with his ability to laugh at mischance, his playfulness provides, particularly in the first half, a memorable counterpoint.

    ( Matthew Fay)

    What other critics had to say.....
    NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Masterfully organised production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Some performance, some production, some play."

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