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A CurtainUp London Review
Death of a Salesman

"Everybody around me is so false I'm constantly lowering my ideals."
— Happy
Death of a Salesman
Cast in Death of a Salesman
Wendell Pierce as Willy, Natey Jones as Happy and Sope Dirisu as Biff
(Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)
Arthur Miller's play about the failure of the American Dream was written about a white Jewish salesman but in Marianne Elliott/Miranda Cromwell's joint production the Brooklyn, Loman family are African-American and we wonder whether the dream was anything other than a figment of Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) 's imagination. For once this is not theatrical colour blind casting but an indictment on the lack of upward social mobility for African-Americans in the 1950s.

Anna Fleischle's set is layered with suspended window frames, doorways and hanging furniture in a less than solid environment. In fact the most solid member of the family is Sharon D Clarke's magnificent mother, Linda Loman as she supports her husband unfalteringly and insists her sons respect their father. We see how little he deserves her support after he shouts at her asking her to stop mending stockings, knowing that he has been guilty of giving brand new stockings to his white mistress in Boston. The betrayal isn't just sexual, it's also material. The hardest thing to take in this production is Willy's treatment of his wife.

We are watching in the late 1940s not only Willy's decline as a wage earner but also aspects of his disintegrating mental health and his inability to change with his dependency on his inflated self image. His pride too interferes with the help he is offered by his white neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper). The programme tells us that Willy would be in his mid sixties when the play takes place and due to retire but without the wherewithal. There is Femi Temovo's gospel, jazz and bluesy music to underline the soulful moments of Miller's play.

For the first time I felt that Sharon D Clarke does not have enough to do in this limited picture of the unswervingly loyal Mrs Loman but at least we get to hear her lovely singing voice. In Wendell Pierce's portrayal I found any sympathy for Willy disintegrate as he treats his wife so badly. I was impressed by Sope Dirisu's interpretation of Biff, the elder son whose future was so relied on as a major league football player until his weakness of character means he funks the essential Math exam and avoids the classes and retake. Sport as a way out of the ghetto has long been the hope of those born in deprived areas. In a way Willy has already made it living in residentially white dominated Brooklyn. Biff's discovery of his father in the Boston hotel is a shocking revelation to the boy. As Happy, the son who has inherited his father's philandering, Natey Jones impresses.

I did not see this production at the Young Vic and I wonder how much more impressive it would have been in the close surround rather than in the proscenium arched surround of the Piccadilly.

Death of a Salesman is not my favourite Miller play and I have a permanent regret that I did not see Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role. For Elyse Sommer's review of his performance in 2012 and her love of this play go here

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Death of a Salesman
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell
Starring: Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke, Sope Dirisu, Natey Jones, Trevor Cooper, Joseph Mydell, Ian Bonnar, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt
With: Nenda Neurer, Matthew Seadon-Young, Carole Stennett, Femi Temowo, Jamie Hogarth
Musical Director/Composerr: Femi Temowo
Designer: Anna Fleischle
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Fight and Intimacy Director: Yarit Dor
Lighting Design: Aideen Malone
Sound Designer: Carolyn Dowling
Running time: Three hours 10 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 08444 871 7615
Booking to 4th January 2020
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th November 2019 at the Piccadilly Theatre, Denham Street, London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus.)
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