THE neon and colourful billboards decorating the Piccadilly Theatre’s exterior are par for the course in the narrow West End streets that surround it. The classiness that distinguishes the theatre from the neighbouring plethora of other places of entertainment is only apparent after settling into a seat in its grand 1000+ auditorium. The Art Deco interior goes back to 1928 when the theatre first opened, for a musical, and it provided the setting for the first talking movie to be shown in Britain. The Beatles recorded songs here for a BBC show in the 1960s.
Death of a Salesman
What currently distinguishes what is going on inside the Piccadilly Theatre is its production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The play is a classic of 20th century drama but with a running time of over three hours it demands quality of acting and direction to sustain an audience’s attention. A mediocre production risks sending you to sleep but there is no possibility of this happening at the Piccadilly. The drama is imaginatively and skilfully co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, set design is eye-catchingly inventive and the acting is powerful and affecting throughout.
Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke in Death of a Salesman at Piccadilly Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Aficionados of The Wire and Suits will welcome seeing Wendell Pierce on the stage, not as the detective Bunk Moreland or Meghan Markle’s screen father but as Willy Loman, the New York salesman of the play’s title. All tragic heroes possess a flaw in their character and Willy Loman’s is his fond belief in the American Dream. It is also the source of the strength of mind that enabled him to make something of his life in a ruthlessly competitive society. The superb Sharon D Clarke plays the dignified wife who knows him better than he knows himself. Together they have made a family, brought up two sons and survived – until now.
Turning the white, Jewish Loman family into an African American one brings a new dimension to the drama and it is hard not to think that Arthur Miller would have applauded the relevance of the change. The abolition of slavery did not bring social justice to black Americans, the majority of whom lived in the southern states, and when the new century saw industries in the urban north recruting factory workers there was a mass exodus from the south. Willy Loman becomes one of these migrants and thus the co-directors inject a racial aspect into the play that is completely believable.
Alexandra Guelff in Witness for the Prosecution
A very different kind of play is taking place on the banks of the Thames in the capital city. London’s County Hall was built early in the twentieth century as the headquarters for the city’s council. The Portland stone that gives a face to the imposing six-storey building adds to its impressiveness on the Embankment, diagonal to the Houses of Parliament. No longer a political edifice, having being abolished by the UK government in 1986, it is now home to two hotels, restaurants and various other outlets. Its central chamber, where rival parties debated and argued over the direction of London’s politics, is the theatrical space for Witness for the Prosecution.
The physical space of the chamber is ideal for a dramatization of what was first written as a short story by the acclaimed thriller writer Agatha Christie. That was in 1925 and it took more than a quarter of a century before she adapted it for the stage under its revised title, Witness for the Prosecution.
The plotline has a simple beginning: a man befriended an elderly and rich woman, inheriting all her wealth after her murder. Witnesses saw the man on the night of the crime with blood-stained clothes but he claims he was at home with his wife. She, however, does not support his alibi and the case for the prosecution looks unassailable.
The sell-by date for most of Agatha Christie’s writing has passed but her ability to spin a tale and upturn expectations – fundamental to any good thriller – has been put to good use over the years in the form of adaptations and film versions. County Hall’s central chamber is a natural fit for transformation into a courtroom, with the audience seated in a semi-circle around the judge and lawyers for the prosecution and defence. As part of the audience, you cannot help but think of yourself as a member of the jury called upon to follow the evidence and reach a verdict.
Spoilers are not allowed. Members of a jury can only discuss details of the case with one another. Listen carefully to the evidence and try to work out who did it. One clue can be provided: the butler didn’t do it.
by Sean Sheehan