No Villain, Old Red Lion Theatre, review: ‘Lovingly realised’

Adam Harley in No Villain at the Old Red Lion. Picture: Cameron Harle

Adam Harley in No Villain at the Old Red Lion. Picture: Cameron Harle - Credit: Archant

Arthur Miller’s debut play is given an unlikely but successful world premiere in Islington, writes Alex Bellotti.

You’d forgive any suspicion. A young British director, Sean Turner, has unearthed the first play written by legendary American playwright Arthur Miller and is staging its world premiere at the Old Red Lion, a small pub theatre in Islington.

It’s hardly the Broadway treatment for a work that paved the way towards such iconic plays as All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Yet while it’s natural to assume that there is a reason why No Villain – written for a competition while Miller studied at the University of Michigan – has gathered dust for 80 years, there’s plenty in this passionate production which hints at the greatness to come.

In what Miller’s memoir described as his “most autobiographical dramatic work”, the parallels are striking. While at university, the writer became entrenched in communist theory – a transformation that clashed with the capitalist ideology of his father, whose women’s clothing business collapsed during the 1929 Wall Street Crash. This narrative forms the backbone of No Villain, as we are introduced to a struggling New York Jewish family anxiously awaiting the return of their prodigal socialist son, Arnold, from college.

Max Dorey’s malleable set flits between the claustrophobic settings of the family’s cosy but cramped living room and father Abe’s garment shop, which is on the brink following the strikes of newly unionised workers. With anguished shades of Willy Loman, David Bromley brings plenty of empathy to this hard-nosed head-of-family struggling to adapt to both the times and his two sons’ new ways of thinking.

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The Miller figure of Arnold (a well-measured Adam Harley) is no hero – his reluctance to become a ‘scab’ to save his family has strains of both strength and weakness. But the real protagonist is brother Ben, whose layered role as both reluctant business heir and repressed Marxist is given astonishing breadth by George Turvey.

A few lesser characters remain too finely sketched – resulting in some patent over-acting – and while the play pack lots of Miller’s wry observatory humour, the conclusion doesn’t quite pursue the grand archs of tragedy in his later work. Nonetheless, Turner has uncovered a hugely unlikely slice of theatrical legend, and this lovingly performed premiere has done it the justice it deserves.

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Rating: 4/5 stars

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