Jonathan Church’s production of The Price originally ran at Theatre Royal Bath last year, but its transfer to London’s West End comes slap bang in the middle of an unofficial Arthur Miller season; productions of An Enemy of the People and The American Clock have already graced London stages, and The Last Yankee was performed in Bolton earlier this month – plus The Crucible, All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and another version of An Enemy of the People are all scheduled over the coming months. The Price has garnered three Olivier Award nominations, including Best Actor for David Suchet.
It’s 1968, and the building in which Victor Franz spent a good deal of his formative years is about to be demolished. The attic (and its contents) is all that’s left for Victor and his brother Walter, so the time has finally come for them to deal with the incredible amount of furniture and other items that their father retained until his death many years ago. The brothers have been estranged for quite a considerable time: Walter finished his studies and became a successful surgeon, whereas Victor couldn’t afford to continue and so ended up in the police force. Unsure whether Walter will bother to show up, Victor brings in an appraiser (Gregory Solomon) to look over the furniture and hopefully take it off his hands for a tidy sum – but will the price be right?
This play couldn’t have come to London at a much better time, as it acts as a companion piece (of sorts) to The American Clock. Written over a decade apart, they both focus on the Great Depression and the knock-on effects this economic disaster h ad on the family unit; The American Clock (1980) is a thematic prequel, showing a personal history of the Depression days, whereas The Price (1968) is set in the then present, looking back on those days and seeing where it has left them. There are some interesting crossovers between the two plays, such as the significance of the family piano (and the heartbreak of having to sell it), a son not being able to afford to go to college, and the importance placed on believing in something – presumably at least some of these elements are autobiographical in nature.
In this play “the price” doesn’t just refer to what Solomon is prepared to pay for the furniture, but also the different costs the Franz family have borne over the years – from Victor forgoing his education & chosen career in order to support his father, to Walter potentially facing up to the guilt at leaving his brother to eke out an existence while he lived in comfort. It’s a terrific study of family dynamics, as much as an investigation into the effects of a global financial crash on the individual; in the end it’s the tension between the brothers that takes precedent over the potential income from the sale of the furniture. Things do get stuck in a bit of a loop towards the end of the second act, which does feel quite repetitive as their character wade their way through treacle to try and come to a resolution, but it is compelling viewing nonetheless – and you could argue that this sequence is actually a perfect snapshot of a real family in crisis, as these things don’t tend to be as easily resolved as fiction can portray.
Simon Higlett’s set design immediately grabs you as you enter the auditorium – it’s actually one of those rare occasions where you really wish you hadn’t been explicitly told not to take photos of the set, as it’s a striking image that’s crying out to be captured. A mysterious attic room is atmospheric in itself, but when you add in the furniture collection sloping up the roof (as if frozen mid-explosion) it becomes a very eerie sight indeed. A breathtaking display, set off marvellously by Paul Pyant’s lighting design.
The cast of four breathe life into this epic drama with aplomb. Whilst the role of Esther (Victor’s wife) is definitely the least developed of them all, with the focus being on the brothers and the intriguing furniture dealer, Sara Stewart plays her with great spirit – suggesting that she is a force to be reckoned with, even if she is possibly battling with alcoholism. Walter has spent a fair portion of his life adrift from the family and this comes through in Adrian Lukis’ performance, as his accent, outlook and appearance are at odds with his surroundings; he is every inch the doctor, and quite unforgiving in how he sees the past.
At my performance, the role of Victor was played by understudy Sion Lloyd. Despite it all, Victor is a relatively uncomplicated sort of man, who sacrificed his chance of personal success to ensure that he did what he felt was right by his father, trusting that his own honesty was being reciprocated – Lloyd captures this perfectly, occasionally unable to contain the stress he has been under for years (demonstrated by passionate outbursts), but mostly holding on to his trusting nature in spite of the betrayals he has faced. Stepping somewhat into the void left by the long dead Franz patriarch is Gregory Solomon, played with a dark mischief by David Suchet; he frequently makes his entrances just when a bit of levity is required, breaking up some of the more intense moments with cheeky humour, stealing the scene in the process. Suchet has a constant twinkle in his eye, making Solomon a likeable figure – even if you’re not quite sure whether you should trust him…
My verdict? A stellar production of an intriguing play about family tensions – the set is breathtaking and Miller’s insights remain as perceptive as ever.
The Price runs at Wyndham’s Theatre until 27 April 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.