Bristol Old Vic
Opened 18 March, 1999

It is still difficult for Britons to appreciate the depth of feeling of Americans during the Great Depression that, because surely "the system" could not be to blame for the terrible depredations, it must all somehow be their fault. In this respect, Arthur Miller's 1968 play The Price, revived at Bristol Old Vic, makes only partial achievements: it succeeds, with Miller's characteristic sensitivity, in translating such vast forces into individual, non-Olympian protagonists' lives, but in Jan Sargent's production, at least does not take us under the cultural skin to appreciate the full collective burden of such memories.

By Millerian standards, Sargent's production seems curiously low on passion. When brothers Victor and Walter Franz meet up, after years of silence towards each other, to oversee the sale of their late father's remaining effects a hoard of furniture which had once furnished his millionaire's home, then was simply stacked up in a garret after his ruin in 1929 forty-year-old wounds are reopened, but although we feel the festering rancour, there is little sign of fire. Malcolm Tierney's Walter, recovering from a long breakdown, now "owns" his feelings in that modern way which means that they are more often levelly recounted than forcefully enacted; as Victor, who sacrificed a promising academic career in science to become a cop on the beat simply in order to keep his shattered father, Clive Mantle expresses his obstinacy through gritted teeth and cold, civil smiles rather than letting it loose. (Mantle and Susan Wooldridge as his wife Esther also seem several years too young for their roles.) Even at the climax, when both brothers are in relatively full spate, it is as if they have each spent so long in their quite different worlds that they cannot properly communicate with one another even for a final fiery sundering.

The role of Gregory Solomon, the octogenarian furniture dealer, is written to steal scenes, and Bill Wallis does so excellently, pottering around Terry Brown's magnificently dressed set with a beautiful blend of Talmudic inscrutability, a deal-making routine which is as transparent in its intent as it is admirable in the execution (both brothers pay fulsome respect to the old man's performance), and a fainting fit that even Lady Macbeth would scorn as contrived. Overall, though, Sargent and her cast do not take us far enough into this family; they allow us to see into the characters' lives, but we gain little real insight into them.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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