REVIEW: Brilliantly conceived drama grips right up until its devastating conclusion

David Morley and James Meikle in All My Sons

David Morley and James Meikle in All My Sons

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Among community theatre groups, Lewes Little Theatre both aims high and achieves high. Last week’s All My Sons, by Arthur Miller, was right up to the company’s excellent standard.

Sandra Tomlinson does like a challenge. I remember her compellingly staged Sweeney Todd, among the toughest shows in the musical theatre canon, and her imaginative, perfect Twelfth Night with EODS last summer. Now, Miller is among the real heavyweights: aching dilemmas, tightly packed dialogue and frequently dour characters.

But for director, cast and audience, this one is well worth the effort. As a complex back-story unfolds, the action moves from intriguing to gripping to ultimately devastating. Miller himself likened the experience of live theatre to “pushing at a door that is suddenly opened from the other side”. In the close, intimate Little Theatre space, the audience shock at the denouement was palpable.

We are at the end of World War II. Joe Keller, industrialist and family man, has had a pretty good war in business terms and should be looking to a comfortable, complacent retirement. A charmingly detailed set, all timberboards and verandas and roses, perfectly recreates small-town normality. If you know Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, you could be nestling cosily into it.

Even the early dialogue is a kind of lazy Lake Wobegon.

But two shadows are cast across the garden. The Kellers’ elder son is missing in action, and his return is obsessively but vainly awaited by troubled mother Kate. And Joe’s business partner is in prison for selling faulty aircraft engines to the military – a deal in which Joe was also complicit but has evaded justice.

It is a brilliantly conceived piece of drama: a plot which moves remorselessly towards a fatalist conclusion, and a set of characters with lives tangled together. Joe Keller is a flawed man whose past actions prove his downfall.

The central roles are expertly played. A superb, commanding David Morley as patriarchal Joe is genial on the surface but troubled beneath, and he draws genuine sympathy as his life crumbles. Opposite him, Jenny Lloyd Lyons is astonishingly good: nuanced, complex, flickering from assurance to angst.

Younger son Chris is played with vigour and sincerity by James Meikle, while young Melodie Gibson enhances her growing reputation as girlfriend Ann. Torn between love for Chris and loyalty to her father, she has just the right mix of steel and sweetness.

If the play has a weakness, some supporting parts are underwritten. The network of family friends and neighbours seem often to be just functions of the plot and the dialogue is occasionally banal. But all the actors combine to build a well-paced, authentic story. Notable is Eve Costello’s quirky Lydia, bringing light relief.

Sandra Tomlinson’s direction is grounded in authenticity, but her real skill is to capture – even freeze – the key moments. Young lovers Chris and Ann sit happily, but all too briefly, on their rose-framed garden seat. Fractured Joe and Kate touch, but only fleetingly, and are apart again. Indeed the sensitively managed physical aspects of this production are a real strength. Gesture, glance, brush-off or embrace: all exactly right.

A bold choice of play, and a very fine production.

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