Review: No Villain, Old Red Lion

“The trick is to deliver when it’s hard”

It seems scarcely believable that as well regarded a playwright as Arthur Miller could have unproduced work lying around but director Sean Turner has played a blinder in unearthing his first ever play No Villain from the University of Michigan archive. Written for a playwriting competition there, it languished unpublished until Turner’s well-researched discovery and so now the Old Red Lion have quite the coup on their hands – a bona fide Arthur Miller world premiere.

And befitting the occasion, Turner’s creative team have produced some genuinely transformative work in the intimate space of this pub theatre, Max Dorey’s ingenious design doubling most effectively as a cramped New York apartment and the claustrophobic office of a failing garment company. The switch between the two is elegantly facilitated by Jack Weir’s lighting and both sets conjure living, breathing environments that work brilliantly as an extension of the drama. 

Throw in the jazz-flecked score of Richard Melkonian’s scratchy soundscape and 1936 New York City is right there. And in it unfolds the travails of the Simons family, their self-made business crippled by the Depression and facing a fatal blow from an industry-wide shipping clerk walkout. Older son Ben works with his father Abe, younger son Arnie is away at university and as he comes home for a visit, the striking political divide between father and sons comes to the fore.

No Villain is unmistakeably an Arthur Miller play and there’s huge pleasure to be derived in identifying the earliest seeds of the playwright’s genius emerging here. The beleaguered paterfamilias (a fine David Bromley here), an older generation blinkered against a world that has changed beyond their ken, sons straining to break free from a family’s too-tight embrace (George Turvey’s Ben a real stand-out, his powerful performance of unexpressed physicality the show’s best). 

Dramatically, it does feel like a writer coming into his powers rather than the fullest expression thereof, in particular the arrival of Abe lacks the impact that its central foreshadowing implies. But whereas it is often the case that unproduced works have rightfully been collecting dust on hidden shelves, No Villain stands up to the spotlight to become an intriguing, interesting addition to Miller’s collected works and a genuine coup for the Old Red Lion.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 9th January, I advise getting there early if it continues to sell as well as it has been doing as they pack them in at this theatre and you could end up sitting on stairs/someone’s lap/the set

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