“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be… When all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am?”
Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, yet over sixty years later its indictment of the capitalist dream is as relevant now as it was then. His plays are poignant in any age, but although his writing is famously forthright and naturalistic, Miller’s themes can be difficult to fully address on-stage; even for well-established theatre companies. So it comes as a wonderful surprise, to discover that Sheffield University Theatre Company has produced a compelling and moving production of this classic text, with a cast that deliver subtle performances far beyond their years.
Creating a World
But the cast aren’t the only stars of this show. From the moment the curtain goes up on Willy Loman’s disheartened return home, it is clear that the production team and designers have striven to create a believable and realistic world for their cast to inhabit.
The set is beautifully designed by Keir Shields, who has used the space to optimum effect, with raised rostra representing the different rooms and spaces, and the tunnel behind giving us a glimpse into the outside world. This aesthetic is complimented by Fredrik Rentsch’s well thought-out lighting design, which carries the action seamlessly from family home to restaurant and back again.
Ali Stringer has also created a wonderful sound design, featuring subtle period music to add poignancy to the most heart-wrenching moments of the text, and emphasise those subtle flashes of everyday comedy that Miller writes so well.
As with any opening night there were a few shaky moments, and personally I would have liked to have scene the script cut a little more ruthlessly in rehearsal. So it’s a testament to the cast, under superb direction by Perry Hughes, that neither of these things mattered, and the production was so worth watching.
Willy Loman is one of the most enduring and complex characters in 20th century theatre, but Chris Sharp-Paul still manages to deliver a confident and moving performance in the lead role.
Loman is a salesman, but he is also a man living the life of a pathological optimist, firmly convinced that the promised dream is just one more lucky break away. Chris is able to bring both comedy and tragedy to this role without it feeling forced, and as Loman’s mind begins to unravel, it’s impossible not to become caught up in the threads.
Tom Williams as the conflicted Biff, and Alex Cosgriff as the overlooked Happy, also deliver outstanding performances as Loman’s two wayward sons. Alex’s comedic timing is exceptional, and Tom’s transition from football star to disillusioned adult is both subtle and heartbreaking.
Strong comedic performances from Will Taylor, Alex Monks and David Upton, also bring some much needed levity to what is, at its heart, a tragic and emotional play. But it’s Flora Turnbull, in the role of Willy’s long suffering and loyal wife Linda, who truly shines in this piece.
Nothing in her performance feels unnatural, whether she’s playing the role of the supportive wife, the frustrated mother, or the heartbroken widow. The famous monologue in which she declares that ‘attention must be paid’ was a highlight of the show, as was the final, tear-jerking scene.
An Impressive Production
This production may have benefited from being cut slightly more harshly in rehearsal, but overall it far surpasses what many would expect from student theatre. Everything from the design, to the direction, to the performances, is well thought-out and spectacularly delivered.
As ever in theatre, it isn’t perfect, with a couple of stumbles that are to be expected on opening night. But in the end these minor flaws didn’t matter, when set against a two and a half hour production that succeeded in bringing Miller’s grave and cautionary tale so beautifully to life.