The American Clock ★★★★

Rachel Chavkin’s urgent revival of Miller’s little performed journey through America from boom to bust

It’s open season on Arthur Miller in the UK right now, as this second autobiographical play looking back to the legacy of the Great Depression joins The Price on the London stage, with All My Sons waiting in the wings to follow in April. It’s also a sign of the times that both the intimate four-hander that is The Price and The American Clock with its wider canvas are being staged alongside other plays, including notably The Lehman Trilogy, which draw parallels between the fallout from the Depression and the crash of 2008.

Drawing on the shattering oral histories collected by Studs Terkel, Miller paints a 360-degree picture of American life from the Wall Street Crash through the Depression, and he does not confine it to his native New York. A telling sequence transports the audience to Iowa: to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s Midwest, which bankrupted farmers, undermined rural life and made internal refugees of farm workers. Miller takes the long view, his clock continuing to tick through Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal and, speeding up as it counts down, through World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

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American director Rachel Chavkin stages what Miller called “a vaudeville”, complete with a playlist of contemporary hits, as a whirling kaleidoscope of vignettes centred around a more detailed portrait of the Baum family, whom Miller places at the heart of his play. The Baums – father Moe, mother Rose and son Lee (standing for Miller himself) – are Jewish. Chavkin wants to widen the American experience – dream and nightmare – to include Asian and African American families, so she casts the Baums in triplicate, dressing each character similarly. Although the concept is confusing to take in, because the casting is so strong, the three Baum families are never less than watchable and Chavkin creates a real visual impact. For example with her three Roses dressed in a yellow as vibrant as their performances (costumes designer Rosie Elnile).

From the start Clarke Peters, who also plays ‘Moe 3’, is the vital narrator figure who guides the audience through the vortex into which America spiralled after the Wall Street Crash. He is Arthur A Robertson, a wise and wily watcher of the markets, a people watcher too, whose careful warnings to investors large and small go more or less unheeded amid the hysteria of shares going up – and down.

Chavkin’s 18-strong cast are equally at home singing and dancing. They vividly create the febrile atmosphere, surging around designer Chloe Lamford’s simple circular stage dominated by boards displaying rising and then plunging stock prices, constantly reconfigured by ‘operatives’ running up and down ladders. Even before the play begins the period mood is created by the onstage band of four, led by hard working MD Jim Henson at the keyboards. Justin Ellington’s specially composed music wonderfully complements and illuminates the almost irrepressible cock-eyed optimism of favourite 30s standards, including ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ and ‘S’Wonderful’. The lyrics of ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ – “If I never have a cent, I'll be rich as Rock-e-fellow, hey / With gold dust at my feet” – become especially poignant.

The frenetic upbeat atmosphere of the 1929 opening gives way to desperation and despair. In the city, suicide becomes commonplace (a room on the 19th floor? “For sleeping or jumping?” asks the front desk clerk). In Iowa, a farmer’s beloved land and animals fetch cents at auction and shockingly the country comes to town, when a starving farm worker collapses at the Baum family’s New York apartment door asking for food and work. All three trios of actors work seamlessly together to share the trajectory of the Baums, from the security and complacency of wealth to the awareness of the fragility of daily life. Teenager Lee withdraws his last precious $12 from the bank just in time to buy a bicycle, but this now vital form of transport is immediately stolen. It’s not long before his father is reduced to begging 50 cents from his son.

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There are strong performances from all nine actors cast as the Baums (Moe, Rose and Lee 1: James Garnon, Clare Burt and Fred Haig; 2: Abhin Galeya, Amber Aga and Taheen Modak; 3: Clarke Peters, Golda Rosheuvel and Jyuddah James). Garnon and Rosheuvel stand out in every character they create, Ewan Wardrop dazzles as “tap and tell” dancing Bank President Brewster, whose twinkling toes help to show why he feels he must resign. Ann Yee’s choreography is always spot on, whether it’s displaying the high energy of optimism or desperation, or the almost motionless staggering of exhausted couples trying to win the prize pot at the infamous dance marathons of the times.

Miller’s play may be flawed and sometimes unfocused and, at three hours, could certainly do with pruning, but Chavkins’ is a bold and brave account of an urgently timely play.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Manuel Harlan

The American Clock runs until Saturday 30 March. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only). £12-£65. The Old Vic, SE1 8NB. 084 4871 7628.

Read our interview with the show’s director Rachel Chavkin in the Jan 2019 issue of JR.