The Price. Bolton Octagon/SJT/Hull Truck at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 6-4-11

There is a moral heart, and a humanity to all Arthur Miller’s work that makes me full of respect for the man himself, never mind his talent. Thankfully David Thacker met the great man many times, at length, and worked with him, and the insight that he gained has borne fruit in many productions. As part of the sterling work that he has been doing at Bolton Octagon he has directed a production of The Price. Last time he directed it he had Miller beside him, and you can still tell that very clearly in this new production years later. It’s a great play and he and the cast have done it full justice.

The scenario is a familiar one to many of us who have reached middle age. The detritus of a father’s life is waiting to be disposed of by two brothers, Victor and Walter Frantz, after many years of avoidance, estrangement and indecision. The arrival of a long retired Jewish antique dealer, the enigmatic Gregory Solomon, to value the goods sets in motion a train of events where the version of the past which each character has held inside their heads is challenged and overturned. We all rewrite our past and attribute motives and feelings to others which we can never really be sure of, and this play takes a long hard look at that tendency and examines its consequences. There is plenty of humour here, and real vibrant characters, it is by no means a dry moral treatise, but this is what underpins the writing. There are no villains, each person has their own viewpoint, and their own agenda, and we feel for them all. As the excuses, misunderstandings and evasions of the past are stripped away and the tension mounts you reach the point where you can almost see the ghost of the manipulative old father sitting in his favourite chair enjoying the spectacle. All of the three Frantz’s, Walter, Victor, and Victor’s wife Esther, have a grudge to work out and exorcise. Nobody is free of responsibility or guilt. The tinder is ready to light.

Tom Mannion gives a moving and sincere performance as Victor. He has spent a long unhappy working life as a policeman and taken on the responsibility of looking after his father, and he has always resented the fact that his brother escaped to what he has imagined as a rich, fulfilled and happy life. When he finds that his father was by no means as helpless as he pretended, and certainly not as penniless, his world comes crashing down around him. His sacrifice was for nothing. He lashes out, trying to shore up his assumptions as the tide of reality brought in by his brother Walter sweeps them away.

Colin Stinton is very plausible and likable as Walter. This is important as we need to see that the old Walter has been destroyed by a breakdown and his divorce. When he tells us that he is a new person we need to believe him, so that the tragedy of Victors failure to accept the opportunity for friendship and prosperity which he brings carries its full weight.

Suzan Sylvester is very striking as Esther, Victor’s wife. She has good taste, she likes nice things and her loyalty to Victor has denied her the kind of life that would have made her happy. She is still hanging in there, keeping herself smart and attempting to be cheerful and bright with the help of an odd drink or two. Her desperate attempts to get Victor to be honest about the past and accept his brother’s friendship are all the more moving because they are to no effect. She has always known the truth, as he has, and it is painful and frightening for her to admit it.

All this would be more than enough but just for good measure we get to meet Gregory Solomon, one of the most vivid and engaging characters that Miller ever wrote. This part is a great gift for any actor in the later stages of his career ( Solomon is 90 years old) and Kenneth Alan Taylor relishes every moment. He is sharply precise, funny, moving and completely believable in a part where a lesser actor might be tempted to go over the top. Solomon is an enigma, whose phone number has been found by accident in a very old phone book, almost a mythical character, four times married, who claims to be a former vaudevillian acrobat. He is a catalyst and a truth teller. It has to be one of the best character parts in theatre, and it was a joy to see an actor who clearly enjoys acting without getting carried away playing him!

The Price will never get stale or old, so long as there are human beings living, making mistakes, and trying to come to terms with and make sense of their past.

Well done Bolton Octagon! Well done David Thacker! Arthur Miller would have loved it. We can be sure of that because he left instructions for its future with a great director who admired him enough to carry them out to the letter.

The photograph is a production still from the Bolton Octagon production and it remains the copyright of Ian Tilton.

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