The Price, written after Arthur Miller’s most acclaimed works, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View From The Bridge, is receiving a long overdue all-star cast revival directed by Jonathan Church at Theatre Royal Bath as part of his summer season as Artistic Director. First seen on Broadway in 1968, this 50th anniversary production is as compelling a slice of American theatre as you’re ever likely to come across.
Touching upon Miller’s own relationship with his father, who suffered financial hardship following the Great Depression of 1929, The Price is a complex family drama laced with humour. Set entirely in one room, we nonetheless go on a journey with hard-done-by policeman Victor Franz (Brendan Coyle of Downton Abbey fame) when he’s forced to sell his late father’s furniture collection which has lain in an attic apartment since his death; evocatively illustrated through Simon Higlett’s striking design including a hotch-potch of antique chairs, tables, armoires, chiffonaires and the like, many of which are suspended precariously above the stage.
If the building itself hadn’t been earmarked to be torn down you get the feeling Victor might never have sold the furniture, despite his dissatisfied wife Esther (Sara Stewart) being keen to get her hands on a money pot. With ideas above her station, she arrives in a new dress suit for an evening at the cinema and condescendingly encourages her husband to forgo his uniform so as not to bump into colleagues on a rare night out.
A cop who could have been so much more had he not been conscientious enough to look after his old dad and put his young brother’s education before his own, Victor, and especially Esther, are full of resentment of his successful surgeon brother Walter, with whom he is now estranged. This tangled web of a play examines the rawness of the past and, not the price of furniture, but the price of Victor’s self-sacrifice, or, as in Walter’s case, ruthlessness, with a series of revelations that are far worse for Victor to handle than the misunderstandings and falsehoods he has spent a lifetime labouring under.
Stewart lends great depth to the desperate Esther, off to collect the dry cleaning but really to have a drink, despite declaring that she’s not an alcoholic. Her fading glamour, with try-hard red nails and lips, suggests all the restlessness of a childless middle age, while her pleas for Victor to get the best possible price from the dealer Gregory Solomon (David Suchet), due to arrive any moment, are delivered with exasperation that her husband never has enough money to retire on.
Our first impression of the aged Jewish dealer is that he’s a wily old fox. Yes, Solomon might use a walking stick but he displays an agile, manipulative mind, assessing the failings of the items, too large for modern apartments apparently. At the age of eighty-nine, he claims to be reluctant to take on such a challenge, though admits to a love of work and that he’s sorely tempted to start afresh, prompting Victor to begin an inadvertent sales pitch and lose any negotiating position. In terms of acting, Coyle more than holds his own against the powerful, magnetic Suchet whose interpretation of this seedy, comical character is a joy.
When Solomon cherry picks a couple of star pieces, such as the harp (with its cracked soundboard) prominently positioned to the left of the stage, which Victor’s late mother once played, we see that many of these objects still hold sentimental value and are difficult for him to part with – from his old fencing foil to a bunch of records including a 1920s novelty laughter recording. Whilst there’s a great deal of prevarication from Solomon on the price he is willing to offer, they finally agree a figure only for Victor’s long lost brother, Walter (Adrian Lukis) to appear just in time to put a spanner in the works.
Lukis delivers a commanding performance of the well turned out, black sheep brother, far too successful to care about the spoils which are strangely symbolic of their relationship. Can Victor and Walter heal old wounds by thrashing out their differences? Or will honesty simply make matters worse? Esther certainly doesn’t help when she returns with the dry cleaning, while Solomon observes the in-fighting with typical Miller wryness. The family strains, familiar to most of us, are interspersed with dazzling, ironic humour that makes us regard The Price as the playwright’s unsung hero, while Suchet is worth his weight in gold.
The Price at Theatre Royal Bath, Saw Close, Bath until 25 August 2018. Running time 2 hours 40 including an interval. For more information and tickets please visit the website.