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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Noël Coward Theatre


  Antony Sher and Alex Hassell/ Ph: Ellie Kurttz

"Attention must be paid," insists Harriet Walter's greying but wiry Linda Loman in this RSC production of Arthur Miller's American classic, which has transferred from Stratford to the West End. "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person," she repeats, staunchly speaking up for her exhausted and ailing husband, Antony Sher's Willy, and – symbolically, of course – for all society’s underdogs stuck near the bottom of the capitalist ladder.
When Death of a Salesman premiered, back in 1949, the playwright caused a stir, not just for suggesting that such a "low man" could be a tragic protagonist on a par with the "leaders of men" deemed worthy of pathos in ancient dramas. The Marxist-influenced Miller additionally indicated that the American Dream of making it big via commercial wheeler-dealing was – for many ordinary Joes – delusional and part of a wider tissue of lies.
It's 100 years since Miller was born, and director Gregory Doran's centenary revival is in period costume, plus American accents. However, as Sher's small, moustachioed Loman makes his first entrance – trudging to his front door, weighed down by anxieties – this play is clearly still resonant in present-day Britain, where so many of the workforce continue to struggle in the wake of the Great Recession. A cynical audience laugh is, notably, raised when the shrugging Brooklyn businessman Charley (excellent Joshua Richards) asks Willy, "Why must everyone like you? Who liked J.P. Morgan?"
Actually, Sher's performance also highlights that Death of a Salesman isn't wall-to-wall gloom as he draws out enjoyable comic rhythms in Willy's growly, snappy little fits of domestic irascibility and in the character's habit of contradicting what he has just said. That adds humorous warmth to the opening scenes, before Willy’s frazzled mind becomes more desperately demented and Lear-like.
Miller's play is most startling when the aged Willy’s here-and-now reality starts radically overlapping with his fantasies and memories. Unfortunately, Sher occasionally looks as if he’s turning his performance out to the auditorium, self-consciously. As Willy’s 30-something son Biff, Alex Hassell also looks as if he’s posturing when he’s required to regress in time and play a daddy-adoring schoolboy who repeatedly strikes sporting-hero freezes. On the night I attended, the production’s music cues seemed peculiarly obtrusive, as did one or two lighting changes – the grey apartments surrounding the Lomans’ house suddenly glowing like a luridly bright iPod ad.
Nonetheless, Hassell (who recently played Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff for Doran) hits his stride as the adult Biff becomes increasingly fraught, torn between rage and tenderness for his crazed, belligerent father. Sher is unforgettably moving in the final bewildered moment when he hugs Hassell, asking like a parent with a newborn baby, “Why is he crying?” Meanwhile, Walter is really outstanding, understated and wonderfully natural: the woman having depths of sorrow but also a steely core.

Kate Bassett is a theatre critic for The Times of London.


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