REVIEW: Arthur Miller's The American Clock at the Old Vic

The Old Vic Theatre
Arthur Miller's The American Clock 
(Old Vic Theatre. 23 February 2019. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

I can think of three good reasons to go and see Arthur Miller's The American Clock – A Vaudeville, from 1980 at Old Vic, in a production directed by Rachel Chavkin.

The first is the contemporary relevance of a play about the decade of the 1930s, with its theme of what – if anything – one can trust, believe and hold on to when things get tough. It is a theme that clearly has resonances and relevance for our time. The second is the myriad clever ways in which the almost ever-present music sets the scene, comments on and propels the narrative. And the third is a performance of total authority and grace by Clarke Peters. (Hurry, because he is only with the show until 2 March – the production continues until 30 March).

The production is almost halfway through its run (I was just curious about it and bought a ticket). It is well known that the play was originally a flop: it closed after just 12 performances on Broadway in 1980. And it is not difficult for critics to make the weakness of its script and of characterisation into the main deal. The Spectator's theatre critic, also a playwright, has just written here that it “feels like a clutch of abandoned scripts patched together into a messy whole”.

I think the strap-line "A Vaudeville" (definition here) makes it clear that Miller has set the show up as a series of vignettes. Essentially Miller's conceit is that tracking one family's story through the whole decade of the 1930s can be seen as emblematic for a whole era, for the whole country. Brecht is definitely in the machinery: characters parade with banners to mark the year that the drama has reached. This production spreads those roles across three actors, which most critics have said confuses things: I thought it varied the delivery, kept the action going, gave more of the sense of a Greek chorus passing comment.

What Miller does is to show a series of things which people can latch onto in a time of uncertainty. So, for example, at the beginning of the play, the belief being tested is that "markets will rise". There is a riff on how economic depression is experienced at first hand. One rueful moment comes from a Mississippi character who states that economic depression only affects white people – because black people never know anything but that and never rise up from it. And then there is a whole load of symbolism about the jazz age and music stopping, culminating in a poignant moment when the family's piano is repossessed

What stays in the mind from this "revue" are the powerful moments when the mood of a particular time is captured and brought forward with real immediacy. The closing sequence of the first half leading to the Roosevelt inauguration speech of 1933 (“ the only thing we have to fear is... fear itself”) was something I won't forget. It had a pulse running through it: the regular low thud of Shaney Forbes's magnificently metronomic drumming underpinned the scene, as if one was supposed to be feeling the heartbeat of America.

He was one of the four musicians on stage. Pianist/guitarist Jim Henson was the musical director, and accompanied a number of the cast in songs. James Gardiner (yes the alumnus of e.g. the George Michael band) was on clarinet and alto, and Laurence Ungless was on bass.

The music was cleverly done to reflect the decade. Songs like The Sunny Side of the Street (Fields/McHugh) and Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out became interweaved into the narrative and became motifs, commentaries to accompany the story of the economic depression. There was a doff of the cap to Gershwin (one of the characters wants to feed his family by becoming a successful songwriter) with S'Wonderful, and to mark 1938, and to recall the vibe of the Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, there was a frenetic mesmeric Sing, Sing, Sing version of a cycled four-bar figure from It Don't Mean A Thing. The music was accurately subtly right. There were also more recognisably modern transformations of the themes of the period into dream sequences, cleverly constructed by composer Justin Ellington. The part of the creative team doing the music just seemed to set a high standard throughout.

There was one scene set in a dole office, where the "belief" being worked over is communism. And the absence of any musical accompaniment made it hectoring and grating and also otiose. Perhaps that was the point.

And I was just bowled over by the presence, the diction, the authority of Clarke Peters. Every word, every nuance is understandable. The pacing, the timing of his every word is mesmerizing. His performance is worth the price of the ticket on its own.

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