Death of a Salesman

Thu 20th – Sat 22nd November 2014


Simon Fearn

at 23:48 on 20th Nov 2014



There is no easy way of saying it. The 2014 Fresher’s Play had the opening night from hell. After a second act that was at times painful to watch, the cast stumbled towards the front of the stage like a particularly miserable crowd of the undead. Yet it was clear that empathy rather than hostility was the dominant feeling in the audience. This was partly because, at times, an engaging interpretation of Arthur Miller’s classic shone through the collapsing production.

Perhaps it is better to judge this production through the first act, before disaster ensued. George Breare as the famous Willy Loman bustled onto the half-lit stage, with Isabella Culkin as Linda in tow. The two seemed curiously unmatched, Breare’s lumbering patriarch unfairly overshadowed Culkin’s battered housewife, and although the latter was at times barely audible, her accent was the most secure of the cast. The play’s exposition continued with Adam Simpson and William Hanway delivering more convincing yet hugely stereotypical performances. Their cinematic posturing and flirtation with melodrama rang disappointingly hollow. Yet all was forgiven as the stage exploded into brightness with the first of Loman’s slippages into the past. This sequence was near perfection. An idyllic American family scene morphed hysterically into a claustrophobic nightmare, with the frantic traffic of the stage reaching a heart-stopping fever pitch before the audience were plunged climatically into the pitch black. Caleb Bond as the lighting designer is clearly a miracle worker.

Unfortunately, none of the following scenes were ever so beautifully choreographed. The Loman family never moved beyond the archetypal, one left the theatre with no idea of them as individuals. However, Culkin’s trembling monotone was occasionally genuinely affecting when depicting her husband’s decline, yet like Breare’s her performance was somewhat one dimensional, and at times lethargic. Meanwhile, the technical effects began to falter. The manic laughter in Loman’s head should have contributed to one of the play’s greatest moments, but as it sounded like the Wicked Witch of the West stuck on repeat, it was impossible to take seriously. As the Loman household retired for the evening, the audience was left somewhat underwhelmed, yet anticipating the second half.

There was a palpable air of confusion as Breare called for the services of the prompt, yet he recovered admirably and the play was not derailed. But in the proceeding section the production lost much of its vigour. Joe Sherlock was noticeably self-conscious as Loman’s heartless boss, giving Breare little support during a disappointingly delivered monologue. The lead’s confidence evaporated and he was forced to fall back on the prompt more frequently, yet one stands in awe at his stoicism in continuing to deliver a decent performance. By the key scene at the restaurant, the play was irrevocably lost. The embarrassment of Sara Cowburn and Unity Haggard during Biff and Willy’s confrontation was all too real, and along with Biff screaming “sit down” at a seated Loman, the scene was rendered unfortunately comic.

The play’s climatic moments made it a noble failure. Culkin’s disgust at the Loman boys was perfectly delivered, and it ceased to matter that the others’ characterisation lacked nuance as they delivered their hearts on a platter. With the gusto of a man determined to go down in style, Adam Simpson’s smouldering exploded into an atomic cocktail of fury and love. Culkin wordlessly slumped against the refrigerator was also one of the most haunting images of the drama.

A curious conflict occurred in the final few seconds. The screams of Culkin and Simpson at Loman’s suicide were harrowing arrows of pure anguish. In its artless way, it was one of the best conclusions I've seen in theatre. Yet the production couldn't be a triumph. Despite some glorious moments, it’s difficult to imagine a worse opening night. This is a terrible pity. The ambition and toil that has clearly gone in to Death of a Salesman should have reaped rich rewards. Yet although the play couldn't be saved, Isabelle Culkin and Adam Simpson are welcome additions to Durham student theatre, and one can only hope we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.


Joseph McWilliam

at 01:33 on 21st Nov 2014



This year's fresher's play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, tells the story of Willy Loman and his family as they struggle through a world of failed careers, unmet aspirations and a debilitating mental illness that tears the family apart. Being a fresher's play, I was unsure what to expect when I walked into the theatre. Despite my reasonably good hopes for the show, I was met with a mostly unrefined and clustered performance (with some pretty bad American accents) that left me somewhat disappointed. The fact that even the actors themselves did not look impressed during the bows tells me that I am not alone in this opinion.

When the curtain is first drawn back, viewers are met with a cosy set and backdrop as designed by Jean-Sebastian Connell that dominates the stage throughout the performance. Interestingly, the stage floor is divided into the individual rooms of the Loman household, helpfully separating the settings and adding a touch of realism. While attractive, this concept could have been executed far better on a larger stage - the narrow playing space of the Assembly Rooms sadly does not lend itself well to such a huge set and the actors were left confined to what small space remained. Caleb Bond’s lighting was similar; its deployment was minimalistic yet effective, although the reliance on spotlights again had the actors struggling for space. It is best if I do not talk too much about the sound, which consisted of cheesey stock sound effects all too reminiscent of a GCSE drama exam. In contrast, Beth Dawson’s costume design was well-chosen and complimented the actors and characters nicely.

Upon reading the program, the first thing I noticed was that George Breare was both directing the show and playing the lead. An interesting choice. While I can neither criticise nor praise the direction, I can say that perhaps Breare would benefit more in the future from a single commitment. His performance as Willy was emotionless - both in face and body- and character development was lacking. Willy is written as a deep and complex persona with a great potential for portraying emotions and capativating his audience, but Breare achieved neither, instead allowing the plot to run flat. This was not helped by the actor's tendency to stumble over and murmur a good portion of his lines, even requiring a total of five prompts in the second act.

In deserve of praise are Isabelle Culkin playing Linda, and Adam Simpson playing Biff. Culkin handled Linda’s emotional scenes well and easily communicated her character’s thoughts and feelings to the audience, but had an unfortunate tendency to mumble her lines. Simpson often went slightly over-the-top during some climactic moments, but aside from that delivered a realistic and relatable performance that showed good dedication to the role. In particular, William Hanway, playing Happy Loman, was outstanding. Hanway captured my attention every time he stepped onto the stage, flawlessly displaying Happy’s optimistic and likeable personality and added light-heartedness to an otherwise morbid play with well-timed comedy. Of the non-principal cast, also worthy of mention are Wesley Milligan as Stanley, Emelie Aspeling as The Woman and Felix Hawlin as Bernard. All three actors made the most of their comparatively small roles and brought a smile to my face during their stage time.

All-in-all, Death of a Salesman was not fantastic. It was not absolutely awful, either, for a first night, and I feel that had the cast and crew had more time for character development and fine-tuning the show could have been improved massively. I hope that this year’s freshers will use Death of a Salesman as a learning experience and refine their talents over the coming years, as all of the cast and crew certainly showed some potential- it just needs to be let loose.


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