Review: Death of a Salesman

This iconic play by Arthur Miller may have been written back in 1949 but the message remains as relevant as ever.  We all have aspirations – some come to fruition while many unfortunately surmount to nothing more than pipe dreams – and the American dream in particular is still something many people chase and desire to this day.

Death of a Salesman was penned in a post-war world of emerging hope and rising opportunities, but yet takes on the pessimistic perspective that not everyone is meant for success, fame and fortune – that sometimes all we are destined to be in this lifetime is ordinary.  We follow Willy Loman, a sixty-year-old burned out, world weary salesman who is fast losing his grip on reality.  He is prone to talking to himself and often relives past events through vivid flashbacks.  This naturally causes great concern among his family – his doting wife, Linda and middle-aged sons, Biff and Happy.

Presented by Peach Theatre Company, this production is masterfully crafted with the structure mirroring a stream of consciousness.  The narrative shifts seamlessly between present time and the past through effective lighting cues and subtle changes in score.  The lines between reality and hallucination increasingly blur as the story develops; whether intentional or not, I thought this fit perfectly with Willy’s progressively deteriorating state of mind.  As Willy delves deeper in to his subconscious, his mistakes, failures and frustrations bubble to the surface and eventually everything in his life unravels.  What unfolds is riveting, heartbreaking and incredibly thought-provoking.

I love a good story with depth and this one is certainly one of them.  Almost everything is symbolic of something or has an underlying meaning.  This story tackles a lot of things which we can all relate to on some level.  Annie Whittle’s haunting laugh from the shadows is a particularly chilling symbol and constant reminder of an infidelity from Willy’s past.  Uncle Ben, his older brother, represents the man he wishes he was and the American dream that has eluded him.  Then there’s his ruthless boss, Howard Wagner, played credibly by Dwayne Cameron, who is the epitome of the cut-throat nature of the corporate world – one that disregards loyalty and is devoid of sentiment.

 

This complex play is brought to life by a stellar cast, many of which are veterans in the industry.  Jesse Peach is clearly a skilled actor’s director as he has really succeeded in bringing out the best in this talented ensemble.  George Henare portrays Willy with great heart and conviction, once again proving what a chameleon and exceptional stage actor he is.  Catherine Wilkin also put on a solid performance as the loving matriarch of the family.

I was really impressed with Ian Hughes’ heartfelt and earnest performance as Biff and I thought Richard Knowles was a great choice as the younger brother; his more jovial energy complemented Ian’s perfectly and the chemistry between them really translated in the many brotherly moments they shared.  Outside the Loman family, the supporting actors do an excellent job depicting their characters too.  I felt the entire ensemble instinctively knew how to play off each other and everything just came together brilliantly, forming an overall superb stage performance.

Death of a Salesman is intense and a sombre piece so is not for everyone, particularly if you enjoy your theatre on the light-hearted side.  But if you want a gripping and compelling story you can really sink your teeth into, this one packs an emotional punch and delivers a powerful message of life and the death of a dream that will resonate with you.

The Whimsical Banana rates Death of a Salesman: 4/5 bananas

Death of a Salesman is playing at the Maidment Theatre until 27th October.  There are only six more shows so get in quick!  Click here for tickets.

Thank you to Elephant Publicity!

Review: Educating Rita

Theatre has really evolved, especially in recent years.  These days most productions use visual and audio spectacle and employ innovative and sometimes unconventional ways to tell the story to the audience.  At the preview night of Educating Rita I was reminded that sometimes going back to the basics and keeping it simple can be just as entertaining and equally as effective.

Written by British playwright Willy Russell and under the skillful direction of Adey Ramsel, Educating Rita is Newmarket Stage Company’s debut production and is truly an enjoyable watch.  As soon as you take your seat, your eyes are immediately drawn to the set.  The story plays out entirely in a university office in 1980’s England.  Messy and filled with old furniture and shelves of all sizes (which we soon learn holds more than just books!), you really do get a dusty and lived-in sense amiss the organized chaos.

George Henare, theatre veteran who needs no introduction, plays the cynical and disillusioned tutor Dr Frank Bryant while Jodie Hillock, who was most recently in Silo Theatre’s TRIBES*, plays Rita, the bubbly and ambitious student who will not take no for an answer.  Rita has an unbridled eagerness to learn which does not sit well with the world-weary Frank who has lost his thirst for knowledge and passion for teaching.

*You can read my review of TRIBES here.

A failed poet (or so he thinks) and struggling alcoholic, Frank is initially ever so slightly annoyed but mostly bemused by Rita’s endless energy and curiosity but with each lesson she slowly begins to win him over.  In the first act, we see Frank (albeit somewhat reluctantly) teach Rita to appreciate the finer things in life; he is very much a wealth of knowledge and he even gets persuaded into taking Rita to the theatre for the first time.  There is a clear shift in the second act.  Having gone away for the summer, Rita has returned more exposed and educated and soon the student becomes the teacher as she begins to teach Frank a thing or two.

I really enjoyed watching the bond between the two characters grow and blossom throughout the play.  This really allowed George and Jodie to showcase their acting range.  As Rita’s knowledge increases the gap between the two individuals diminishes and soon their relationship becomes very much that of peers.  When Frank invites Rita over for dinner, while Rita is concerned that she will appear inferior next to the other guests, Frank really only just wanted her there for her company.  Similarly when Frank’s alcoholism begins to take over and it looks like he is about to be engulfed by his insecurities and loneliness, it is Rita who has his back.

The cluttered set coupled with George and Jodie’s compelling stage presence marry well to fill the space and effortlessly hold your attention from start to finish.  Their passionate performances of their characters are a joy to watch – George’s excellent facial expressions bring a welcome element of comedy into the story and Jodie embodies the carefree and playful Rita perfectly.  I also thought her command of the accent was impressive and very believable.

Educating Rita is heartwarming, witty and an incredibly entertaining “feel good” theatrical production.  It talks about friendship, self-discovery, freedom and what it means to be happy – something we all can relate to.

The Whimsical Banana rates Educating Rita: 4/5 bananas! 

I am already looking forward to the next production!

Newmarket Stage Company’s Educating Rita plays at the tiny but cozy Factory Theatre in Newmarket until the 8th September.  For more information and tickets, click here.