Tuesday, September 15, 2015

'The Man Who Had All the Luck' at the King's Head Theatre, 13th September 2015

David Beeves is a lucky man. He can fix cars without any training. He buys a run-down gas station and the government decide to run the new freeway past it. He's married to his childhood sweetheart in a palatial home. Everyone in town instinctively regards him as a 'good man', falling over themselves to do him favours and grant him opportunities. Yet while fortune smiles ever more brightly upon him, his friends and family wallow in mediocrity and failure. Why should the universe hand everything to him on a silver platter while everyone else scrapes for a solitary crust?

This is the conceit of The Man Who Had All the Luck, generally regarded as Arthur Miller's 'lost' play. Written in 1940, the play reached New York stages in 1944. It was a dramatic failure, running for just four performances and almost spoiling Miller's nascent career. It wasn't until 1990 when the Bristol Old Vic staged a well-received revival, followed by a transfer to London. Now End of Moving Walkway have brought it back to the King's Head, to impressive effect.

Taking place over a decade or so, we follow the rising fortunes of David Beeves (Jamie Chandler) as he succeeds in business and wins the hand of town beauty Hester (Chloe Walshe). Meanwhile his brother Amos (Michael Kinney) is being moulded into a pro-baseball pitcher by their father Pat (Keith Hill), hoping against hope to be picked up for the big leagues.

Though not to the dizzying standards of his later work, the script is liberally sprinkled with eloquent lyrical moments. Miller's characters spin satisfying analogies on the nature of fate, monologue about their disappearing dreams and weave complex philosophical notes into their observations. Impressively this is all done invisibly - these always remain salt of the earth characters - yet we never detect the heavy hand of author didacticism at work.

Most enjoyable is the way the protagonist's luck deforms the conventional narrative. Throughout the play, David, his friends and we in the audience all await his eventual downfall. After all, to receive all this good fortune must surely mean that he's heading for a fall - and a big one at that. Frustrations mount as it never arrives, David always snatching victory from the jaws of what seems like certain defeat.

Underneath this satisfying drama run undercurrents of history, politics and economics. America in 1940 was still gripped by depression, with individuals feeling at the mercy of vast, unknowable financial machinery. Miller returns repeatedly to an analogy of man as jellyfish at sea, swept in and out on the tides without control. This rings as true today as it did 75 years ago, our employment, social infrastructure, healthcare and the price we pay for bread dependent on the whims of the free market.

Trapped within these byzantine systems, blind luck seems impossibly unfair. Why is it that one man rises to the top of the pile while another rots in poverty? Worse, those that gaze coolly down from their golden towers deny that luck had anything to do with their success, implying that it's only through lack of effort that the rest of us lead precariously balanced lives.

All this gives The Man Who Had All the Luck a vitality that prevents it feeling dated. Helping matters are a smattering of excellent performances. In Jamie Chandler's David we sense the 'good man' that his neighbours are attracted to, yet there's a faint unworldiness that bristles the hairs on the back of your neck. Early on he's berated by the father of his prospective bride, who forcefully explains that there's something very wrong with David. We pick up on this in the performance - there's something inhuman lurking behind that prettyboy gaze.

The supporting cast are no chumps either, with particularly evocative performances from Keith Hill as a sort of proto-Willy Loman and Mark Turnbull as JB, a larger than life, intrinsically period American man. From minute one you know you're in safe hands and it's a pleasure watching these performers ricochet off one another via Miller's powerfully written dialogue. Supporting this is a minimalist yet successful set, within which is hidden a late dramatic flourish that works gangbusters as comment on destiny.

It's deeply satisfying watching The Man Who Had All the Luck coalesce: narrative, performance, subtext and stagecraft all combining into to make a play that runs as sweetly as a Swiss watch. Recommended.


The Man Who Had all the Luck runs until the 27th of September. Tickets here.

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