David Thacker is an expert on Arthur Miller, and it shows in this beautifully acted, finely directed play. It’s one of Miller’s lesser known works but Thacker directed the British premiere at the Young Vic and it went on to hold the record for the longest running Miller play in the West End. So this production has a great provenance.
It’s an oddly constructed play. In the first act, which only lasts 25 minutes, two men, one a carpenter* the other a businessman, meet in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital where they are visiting their wives. The carpenter, Leroy Hamilton, played by David Ricardo-Pierce, is a descendant of the American founding father Andrew Hamilton, now of musical fame. The businessman, John Frick, played by Patrick Poletti, is both agog that Hamilton has these antecedents and astonished that he isn’t rich. It’s an interesting clash of caste and class, which informs everything that follows.
We learn a lot about their family circumstances, and that the wives are both in hospital suffering from depression, Mrs Frick for the first time and Mrs Hamilton for the third. The conversation is exactly the way men talk, trying to find reasons and solutions, subtly and not so subtly comparing status. This sounds bleak, but some of it is extremely funny.
In act two we meet the wives, who know the husbands are waiting and are preparing themselves for the visit. Juliet Aubrey as Patricia Hamilton and Annie Tyson as Karen Frick give wonderful performances where often what they don’t say tells us more than what they do disclose. Miller is careful not to let us draw conclusions about the causes of their depression; the women’s circumstances are totally different, although living with Mr Frick and his interest in catfish would drive me crazy.
Later, the men come into the ward, and we see the interactions between the spouses. The Fricks are bewildered by this new thing in their lives; the Hamiltons worn down by it and yet seizing on the hope of recovery. Act two lasts 80 minutes, but certainly doesn’t feel like it, and I was surprised when the end suddenly arrived. Although it was over for us, we know that it’s not finished for the Hamiltons.
Throughout the play a woman is asleep on a hospital bed at the back of the stage. My companions and I kept wondering if she was going to enter the action, but no, she never moves, which is a feat in itself. Why is she there? Draw your own conclusions, but I don’t believe the play would have the same resonance without her.
While the Octagon is closed for refurbishment the company are performing in different spaces around the town and this production is in the lecture theatre in Bolton Library, which suits it perfectly. It’s the first time the library has been used as a theatre, and it should join the list of similar venues like Oldham, St Helens, and Liverpool Central library as a regular venue for small scale work.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Images by Joel Fildes
* Like his character Leroy Hamilton, Arthur Miller trained as a carpenter and was a fine craftsman. I met a radio journalist who had interviewed him in his workshop, where he was finishing a table he had made. Miller said, and I paraphrase ‘Look at this table, it’s beautiful and it’s functional, it doesn’t wobble and everything about it fits, there’s nothing unnecessary. That’s what my plays are like.’ And they are.
The Last Yankee is at Bolton Octagon until March 16, 2019. For tickets, click here.