Set in the post-crash 1930s America, it’s not hard to see why this lesser-known Arthur Miller play from 1980 will resonate with a 21st Century audience still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crisis.
Subtitled “A Vaudeville”, Rachel Chavkin’s production uses period songs and superb choreography to guide us through the personal and political upheavals of The Great Depression.
The story follows the fortunes of the Baum family, New Yorkers who lose their wealth in the 1929 crash, with Miller channelling his own childhood experiences through the character of Lee.
Clarke Peters is superb as the play’s omniscient narrator and “investment genius” Arthur Robertson, a man who foresaw the crash. There’s a touching early scene in which he advises a shoeshine boy to sell his stocks before it’s too late. The financial meltdown itself is effectively conveyed through a montage of crackly radio clips.
The American Clock is for the most part a sonic and visual delight with some striking set pieces. The on-stage musicians, led by Jim Henson, add lashings of atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed Ewan Wardrop’s tap dance routine as Ted Quinn, the chairman of General Electric. Francesca Mills is also memorable in multiple roles (seven, according to the cast list).
But the use of three sets of actors to play the same members of the Baum family – often on stage simultaneously – felt muddled and distracting in a tale which already has so many characters.
The whole experience lasts three hours. There were moments in the less energetic second half where I wanted the hands of the clock to move faster.
This is the first of two Miller productions at the Old Vic this year. The more famous one, All My Sons, arrives in April.
The American Clock is at The Old Vic until 30 March