For the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s No Villain, The Old Red Lion is transformed like I have never seen before. Max Dorey’s seamless set along with Richard Melkonian’s soundtrack instantly takes us to the 1930s. Everything from the books on the shelf to the scratches on the table ring true and we are completely sucked in to this wonderful portrayal of a family home.
No Villain is a simple story about family, values and the effects of communism. The plot feels slightly obvious with very little surprise but it becomes clear that this play is character driven. Head of the house Abe and his wife Esther (David Bromley and Nesba Crenshaw) are a joy to watch. Completely believable as a couple, as parents and as people. The same can be said for George Turvey and Adam Harley, who play conflicting brothers Ben and Arnold. Harley brings a quiet charm to Arnold, whilst Turvey’s Ben juxtaposes him nicely bringing a brash openness to the stage.
The Simons family own a garment business which used to be highly lucrative. They’ve hit on hard times and father Abe and youngest son Ben are doing everything in their power to keep the business running despite the Communist protests forcing them out of work. Mum is worrying about the safe return of oldest son Arnold from university, where he seems to have picked up some communist views of his own. Then we have the feisty but dithering Grandpa (Kenneth Jay) and the youngest child, (and strangely overly touchy) daughter, Maxine played with a youthful energy by Helen Coles.
The struggles we see the Simon family go through in 1936 seem to ring true to those we see on the news every day. The strikes, Riots, violence and protests. As the scenes swap from the garment store to the living room we really get to see the underlying tension within this seemingly happy family. It’s a play about decisions. Do they deliver the coats and risk the vicious attack from the workers mob outside or stay safe and risk losing the business instead? Do you stick with your morals and stand for what you believe or do you ditch them to help your family, knowing you won’t be able to live with yourself either way. Do you marry a girl you can’t stand to keep your family afloat or refuse and let the money problems continue?
There are two lines in Sean Turner’s thought-provoking 90 minute show which can sit right in any time and sum up what No Villain is really about. We hear Abe say to Ben “You don’t get to be a human being in this business” followed by the next scene, back at home where Esther tells Arnold “there’s still room for good men“. Two conflicting views, that are just as relevant to a Jewish family, in New York, 80 years ago as it is to the UK and US government today.
It’s moments like this which really show us a glimmer of Millers’ genius and what was to come from the then 18 year old writer.
Review by Hugh Roberts
By Arthur Miller
Over six days during spring break 1936 at the University of Michigan, a twenty year old college sophomore wrote his first play, No Villain. His aim was to win the prestigious Avery Hopwood award and, more importantly, the $250 prize he needed in order to return to college the following year. Miller won the award, and the subsequent one, but the play was never produced – until now.
No Villain tells the story of a garment industry strike that sets a son against his factory proprietor father. Here, Miller explores the Marxist theory that would see him hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee years later.
This remarkable debut play gives us a tantalising glimpse of Miller’s early life, the seeding of his political values and the beginning of his extraordinary career. Miller commented, My first attempt at a play, rather inevitably, had been about industrial action and a father and his two sons, the most autobiographical dramatic work I would ever write.
Director Sean Turner comments, Arthur Miller is an idol of mine and I am indescribably proud to have the chance to present a World Premiere of one of his works. It took me eighteen months of research to discover the play and I am delighted that we will present its first outing in this centenary year of his birth. No Villain is a vital addition to the Miller repertoire and gives us a vivid autobiographical glimpse of his youth.
Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ
Tuesday 8th December 2015 – Saturday 9th January 2016