“There’s never been a society that’s not had a clock running on it”
Venturing into the lesser performed works of a playwright, even one as well-renowned as Arthur Miller, is always a tricky manoeuvre. There’s often a good reason plays collect dust on the shelf and so it takes a keen eye to spot the potential for revival and reassessment in a new production. The Finborough have become one of the premier spots in London for unearthing such gems and are hoping that they have struck gold again with Phil Willmott’s new take on Miller’s 1980 play The American Clock, which hasn’t been seen here since its first (albeit Olivier-award winning) run at the National in 1986.
The play was inspired by Studs Terkel’s oral history Hard Times and also Miller’s own recollections from the 1930s, to tell a wide-ranging tale of how the Great Depression actually played out for the American people. Using an episodic structure to work his way through stories of nearly 40 characters, the focus finally settles mainly on one well-off upper middle class family, the Baums, who are forced to relocate from their Manhattan townhouse to a relative’s spare room in Brooklyn, their struggle to deal with their changing fortunes ultimately sending mother, father and son reeling off in tragically different directions.
A new phrase (to me at least) ‘dramatic vaudeville’ has been coined to explain Miller’s panoramic viewpoint here, but the truth is that it is a structure that rarely satisfies one fully. The playwright gives forth on a series of issues: the lack of hope for graduates, the unions, foreclosures on homes, the desperation of those on welfare, but these are fragmented, isolated arguments that rarely coalesce into moments of raw dramatic power. A few moments of commentary come from the intermittent narrator figure of Arthur A Robertson, a banker who saw what was coming and got out in time, but the main impact of the show eventually comes from the Baums. Issy van Randwyck’s delicate songbird Rose deconstructs in front of our very eyes, selling her valuables one by one until she finally loses her precious piano; and Michael Benz as her son Lee who is determined to make a go of it as a journalist, eventually travelling and documenting people’s responses to the crisis right across the USA – ostensibly capturing the indefatigable belief of a people sure that things, and the market, would get better.
The contemporary relevance of a story about financial meltdown, economic crises and its effects on members of society on all levels is undeniably pertinent. And it is something alluded to from the outset in Willmott’s production: the cast are attending a modern-day photographic exhibition inspired by Terkel’s book (how very meta-) and designed by Philip Lindley, from which they break out to take their turns on the vaudeville stage, each covering several roles to mostly good effect – Christopher Heyward, Eva Fontaine and David Ellis standing out for me. Jason Meininger’s lighting works hard to provide different contexts on the intimate stage and the overall effect is powerfully evocative of the all-too-cyclical nature of the fortunes of the economy. The doom-laden, if perhaps a little over-emphatic, final scene rams home this point, but in turn also highlights that Miller has revealed little that is truly substantive here. That Phil Willmott and the Finborough have made it as engaging as it is here is most definitely to their credit.