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A CurtainUp London Review
The American Clock

"How do you keep everything that's big from swallowing up everything that's small?"
— Quinn
The American Clock
The cast of The American Clock
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
The American Clock is a 1980 late piece from Arthur Miller composed of his memories of the Great Depression and incorporating many of his own experiences as his own family lost their livelihood and had to move to a less salubrious area. Miller called it a Vaudeville and Rachel Chavkin has staged it in the reconfigured surround space at the Old Vic.

I found it hard to follow, more like individual snapshots than a unified piece and running at three hours, half an hour over the stated time, it felt like a sprawling and vague immersion in the 1930s which one hoped would soon end.

Three sets of three actors take the main roles, Moe, Rose and their son Lee, like those primary school castings anxious not to have stars but democratically, sacrificing theatre, cast the main parts in quadruplicate. They are dressed alike but this casting just adds to the amorphous confusion.

Clarke Peters plays Mr Robertson who gets out of stocks and shares before the crash. Someone says, "This whole system is based on relentless optimism." A money dance on the revolving stage is replaced by the tales of suicides as men lose everything. Francesca Mills, who bravely has seven roles in this production, as Diana, is told of her brother Randolph's suicide. James Garnon as Moe 1 has to fire his chauffeur as the crisis starts to bite the family.

People move in together to save money and the banks start to close taking with them all people's savings. Farmers face ruin as auctioneers repossess their machinery after their loans have been defaulted on. In a metaphor for desperation, couples compete in exhausting dance marathons in the hope of winning a prize. Company executives experience power and then lose it all as Ewan Wardrop tap dances.

The three boys as Lee talk about giving up education in order to contribute to the family income but in the second act, two of the three graduate. Sidney (Fred Haig) the composer sings the blues with a beautiful, mournful voice. Rose's piano is sold.

One of the boys goes to Mississippi and relates how the meat has maggots in it. Lee discovers communism, an understandable response to the failure of capitalism. Franklin D Roosevelt implements the New Deal and there is hope.

While Lee 2 (Taheen Modak) tries to get on a training through welfare, a starving man collapses in the queue and is fed milk from a baby's bottle. These are powerful images of the Depression but the production overloads the audience.

In a week when every theatre critic is overstretched due to the number of openings trying to squeeze in before the deadline for Olivier nominations, it feels to us like our own marathon dance as we struggle from one theatre to the next.

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The American Clock
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Starring: Amber Aga, Paul Bentall, Greg Bernstien, Clare Burt, Flora Dawson, Abhiun Galeya, James Garnon, Fred Haig, Jyuddah Jaymes, Julie Jupp, Francesca Mills, Taheen Modak, Christian Patterson, Clarke Peters, Sule Rimi, Golda Rosheuvel, Abdul Salis, Ewan Wardrop
Set Design: Chloe Lamford
Costume Design: Rosie Elnile
Composer: Justin Ellington
Choreographer: Ann Yee
Sound Design: Darron L West
Lighting Design: Natasha Chivers
Running time: Three hours with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 30th March 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th February 2019 evening performance at Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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