American dream fails but theatre profits

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Death of a Salesman Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until March 6 tel 0131 248 4848 www.lyceum.org.uk

Teachers are probably unaware of their influence on live theatre. They might be flattered to know that when the accountants, market managers and artistic directors sit down to work out a theatre's programme for the year, teachers are never very far from their thoughts.

This is not because they think teachers need all the spiritual refreshment the stage can offer, but because they can be the box office's best friend. And not just in the pantomime season either.

Just now, Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre is wearing a smile as wide as Princes Street for the very good reason that 100 teachers have taken pupils' names, collected money and ordered buses to bring school parties to see Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. This is an unprecedented box office bonanza for the theatre.

Although the popularity of the play has ensured it has always been in production somewhere in the world throughout the 55 years of its history, by a huge stroke of good fortune for the Lyceum, its production happens to be the only one in Britain this school year.

The upshot is that, although the majority of these 100 school parties are from the Lothians, others are coming from further afield. There is a party coming from Orkney and another from Hull. There were enquiries from Manchester and even Surrey, but maybe for them it was a motorway bridge too far. However, they can get the benefit of the teaching resource that comes with the production. The education page of the Lyceum's website offers teachers and students more than 20 pages of detailed research on the play and its provenance and information relating to this production.

Performing Miller is a two-fold business. The first and easiest part is following the writer's directions for, craftsman that he is, he supplies all the instructions to assemble the play. Director John Dove is helped by Michael Taylor's set which, from its bottles of home-made wine in the kitchen to the unregarded football cups in the boys' bedroom, almost tells the story on its own. Lighting by Jeanine Davies makes the house a moonlit oasis amid the blind-windowed tenements, a warm asylum in the dark, urban jungle.

But for the production to really succeed it needs to trumpet this sense of uniqueness, of something special and apart, throughout.

Miller has written his version of a fanfare for the common man and the challenge for any cast is to convince us that this little man, Willy Loman, is a frustrated giant, that this depressing story of one American businessman's disappointment is an involving tragedy, that we are seeing a potentially heroic Everyman being brought to his knees.

If we cannot sense a capacity for suffering, or glimpse the heights of ambition not reached for, or feel that we are watching a mighty volcano in its last convulsions - and in this production that is sometimes difficult - then what should be a tragedy will sometime seem merely downbeat drama.

Even so, the production is always watchable, with a Lyceum cast all contributing well-judged support. But it is left to Steven Duffy, in the role of Biff, the failed footballer of golden promise, to strike the true note of pathos in his closing farewell to his father. Otherwise we might head home muttering like the New York theatregoer on the play's opening night: "I always said that New England territory was no damn good".

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