Upstairs above an Islington pub is perhaps not the first place you’d think of when you wonder where the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s first play will be staged. But this is the exact scenario in which No Villain, the long undiscovered play by Miller, is being given its first showing.
Described by the writer as “the most autobiographical dramatic work I would ever write”, the plot follows the Simon family who await the return of their son Arnie from university. It deals with Marxism and its implications in 1930s America, across the backdrop of the impact of industrial action on the Simon family coat businesses.
Max Dorey has done an excellent job staging this production; a fairly plain but nonetheless aesthetically pleasing set of a 1930s American family home covers the stage, and captivates with minimal theatre trickery. The lighting provided by Jack Weir is similarly stripped back but paints the stage in a beautiful golden hue throughout most of the show, and is especially prominent in the final scene, which is seemingly lit only by a single candle.
No Villain‘s cast is varied: David Bromley as Abe Simon is a passionate and dominant presence, and both sons played by Adam Harley and George Turvey are just as pleasant to watch. However, the performances given by the two females (Nesba Crenshaw and Helen Coles) seem wholly unnatural – perhaps down to the shortcomings of the script. There is also a wide range of American accents on show that vary from passable to just downright terrible.
But the thing everyone’s really interested in is the script – was Miller always destined to be a premier playwright? The answer from No Villain is probably yes; there are some moments where it’s lacking pace and at times it suffers from over-simplification, but you really can tell this was the start of a talented writer’s career. I’m only really familiar with one other of Miller’s plays – All My Sons – but I could see a lot of parallels between the two: a businessman fallen from grace, a challenged mother and, of course, sons. No Villain does have some immaturity to it (probably to be expected considering Miller wrote it in his 20s). At times I cringed at the constant references to villains, and son Ben’s exceedingly patronising description of communism is almost insulting, but No Villain is by no means a bad play.
Even despite the historical importance and excellent staging of No Villain, I still came out feeling a little bit bored. Perhaps it’s just my personal lack of interest in melodramatic plays, but I didn’t really feel drawn into the characters or story, meaning at the play’s climax I wasn’t that bothered if there was a happy ending or not. If you’re a Miller fan and can deal with a lot of shouting and crying then No Villain will be your play of the year. If you’ve only got a passing interest then don’t expect anything particularly life-changing.
No Villain is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 9 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.