Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Theatre Review: No Villain

What do early Arthur Miller play No Villain and Conservative party conference have in common?

I’ll tell you. They are two of the only situations in life into which I feel like I could be dropped with no explanation and still instantly know where I was.

Tory conference is, as a sociological experiment, an amazing place. So many suits, so much champagne and so many hyphenated surnames. It’s the most frighteningly homogenous place I’ve ever been (for work, I hasten to add) but there is a sort of reassurance in the fact that it’s basically the same as it has always been and will always be.

(Stick with me here I am going somewhere with this.)

Image source.

No Villain, currently playing in the dinky Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios, gave me a similar feeling of reassuring familiarity. A recently discovered piece, No Villain is the first play Miller ever wrote and is, fairly obviously, semi-autobiographical. It is also a prototype for almost every play he wrote subsequently, especially Death of a Salesman. Had I been dropped into that theatre with no explanation, I would certainly known I was watching Miller. I may well have thought that it was Death of a Salesman. Thankfully, here the similarities with Tory conference begin and end.

Because unlike Tory conference, I actually really enjoyed No Villain. Admittedly, if you’ve seen Death of a Salesman you do get a slight sense of deja vu, both from the writing and the characterisation. If you don’t like Death of a Salesman I can see that this would be an issue for you, but I fucking love that beautiful bleak thing so for me it wasn’t at all. And the work is no less powerful for being something slightly less than original. There’s the same sense of middle aged anguish at hard work amounting to failure and of youthful idealism and yearning for change in Villain as in Salesman and in both cases the inevitable collision between the two is heartbreaking and dramatic. I’ve always felt that the emotional heart of Miller’s writing comes from the fact it’s rooted in ordinary, plausible human experience. No Villain is, for my money, the most ordinary and plausible of his stories and for that is all the more powerful. Some of the more lengthy crow-barring in of Marxist theory could quite happily be cut - whoever heard of a new writer delivering a perfect play anyway? - but strip that away and the story at the heart of this piece is incredibly strong.

Some slightly wandering accents aside, this production is helped in its power by a fantastic, small, ensemble cast. There’s really nowhere to hide in Studio 2 - a stage the size of a small kitchen with three rows of seats around three sides - and the cast work with that really well. George Turvey as Ben, the non-intellectual son who nonetheless is won over by the appeal of his intellectual brother’s Communism, is a particular highlight turning in a performance of real emotional conflict. Nesba Crenshaw is also great, and exceptionally watchable, as his highly strung mother. I found David Bromley’s Abe (Villain’s proto-Willy Loman) a little bit more hit and miss, but when he did hit he was excellent and had the perfect air of impotent rage and confusion that this character requires.

Necessarily for such a small space, on the face of it there’s not much to the design of this show but what there is is done very well. I found the simple, quick changes between the play’s two sets - the family home and the family factory - very impressive given the confines in which they had to work. It’s low key amazing what they manage to achieve with a table, a couple of chairs and some curtain rails of ‘fur’ coats.

I really enjoyed No Villain and would recommend it to anyone, especially given the ticket price range and the fact it’s only 80 minutes long. However, if you hate Death of a Salesman there’s nothing for you here (and also you’re dead inside).

No Villain plays at Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios until 23rd July. Be quick.

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