Hold the front page: there will soon be more ladies’ loos at the Old Vic! The queue snaking across the stalls bar during the interval has been one of the theatre’s hallmarks for far too long. For now, the familiar configuration of Lilian Baylis’ south London stronghold is much altered as building work gets underway. There are, however, already more loos – but in portacabins.
Golda Rosheuvel (standing) and the cast of The American Clock at The Old Vic ©Manuel Harlan
Arthur Miller’s The American Clock, going on inside the altering theatre, isn’t a play. It certainly isn’t vintage Miller, like other examples of his work, such as The Price (just opened at Wyndham’s Theatre), All My Sons (coming to the Old Vic in April) and Death of a Salesman (due to open at the Young Vic in May) which are constituting an impromptu Miller festival. The American Clock is a collection of reminiscences, Miller’s own and other people’s – in short, dramatised oral history.
The Depression hit Miller’s own family, like that of many others, hard. The American Clock chronicles the years from 1929 to the Second World War in a mosaic of human suffering and loss, focusing on the Baum family but including a kaleidoscopic array of characters. It is fragmented, bitty and – at three hours – far too long and it seems to want to tell the awful stories without being too depressing (Miller described it as vaudeville), which risks resulting in a lack of empathy. On the other hand, it still manages to celebrate both a spirit of survival and a willingness for people – however haltingly – to show understanding and kindness to each other.
Rachel Chavkin’s production, played in traverse, with some of the audience onstage, depends on a revolve to move efficiently from one scene to the next. She has a superb cast, including Clarke Peters who sets the scene, as the canny businessman Robertson, with a kind of light-touch gravitas and is the “glue” which links the stories of differing groups and individuals. The Baum family, who exchange thoughtless comfort for poverty, is here played in triplicate, white Jewish, Asian and African-American, with Peters playing Moe, the father, in the latter.
There is a splendid live jazz combo, dancing, singing (notably by Golda Rosheuvel whose powerful, deep voice is laden with unbearable suffering) and some memorable vignettes: Ewan Wardrop as a tap-dancing CEO, for instance, and Francesca Mills in various roles, broken with grief or infectiously funny.
Several reviewers have noted the uncomfortable parallel between our current unhappy political situation and the swift slide into misery of the average American swept up, powerless, in systemic failure. Let’s hope we can muster similarly excellent ensemble playing as time goes by.