The intimacy of the Watermill at Bagnor, near Newbury, perfectly mirrored the domestic setting of Arthur Miller’s great 1947 play, All My Sons. It is a tragedy of a man, caught in the spotlight, who cannot bear the glare.
Based on a true story told to Miller by his then mother-in-law, ‘the last person in the world I could imagine being inspired by’, it explores the morality of a man whose responsibilities extend only as far as his immediate family, whom he adores. Joe Keller (Michael Thomas) is a hardworking factory owner with little education. Through application and hard graft he has built a business in aircraft parts, which he supplies to the US Government during WWII. Young pilots, like Keller’s son, Larry, depend on the reliability of their aircraft, as they dice with death in airborne combat.
Larry, the much loved elder son, is missing. His mother, Kate Keller (Jessica Turner), has never lost hope. The Kellers’ idealistic younger son, Chris (Adam Burton), has returned from the war, scarred by loss of comrades, and intends marrying Larry’s fiancée, their childhood neighbour Ann Deever (Siobhan O’Kelly), who has returned, at Chris’ invitation for a visit.
What returns too, in this most domestic and affecting drama, is the past. While Joe Keller justifies an act of conscious commercialism over an ethical decision in the name of protecting his own family, his action leads to the destruction of Ann Deever’s.
It is not until Keller recognises the worth of ‘all my sons’, not just of his immediate family, that he understands his son Chris’ idealistic expectation of ethical engagement with a greater society – and how, in this above all other measures, Keller has failed his family. For Keller, moral culpability is a tough one to take.
There are so many finely nuanced performances in this riveting production; almost every cast member deserves special mention. The women are particularly strong. Jessica Turner’s mesmerising mother, loving and loyal, clings to Larry’s memory while forbidding the family to move on with their lives; Turner’s visionary frailty is luminous, while her control over the finest gradations of emotion never falters. Ann’s strength wrestles with her doubt, yet she remains eloquent and steadfast in a storm of revelations. Pascale Burgess, in her portrayal of cynical neighbour Sue Bayliss, delivers truth and clarity out of bitter resentment and jealousy of the ‘Holy Family’ – the commercially successful Kellers next door. Lizzie Lewis, as enchanting, sunny mother of three, Lydia Lubey, shows Ann’s brother George, arriving with a tale to tell, what might have been.
Michael Thomas’ Joe Keller holds the stage, and delivers Miller’s resonant lines with power. Subtlety is Thomas Padden’s strength, and his portrayal of wounded youth, struck to the heart by the prison revelations of his wronged father Steve, who has, protesting, taken the fall for Keller’s criminal act, is masterly.
‘See it human’, Keller begs his family. Douglas Rintoul’s superb production does just that.