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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Death of a Salesman, at Her Majesty's Theatre - 175 minutes, plus a 20-minute interval

Anthony Lapaglia and Alison Whyte shine in a superb rendition of one of the finest plays of the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

It won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in the same year.

It is an incendiary look at the American Dream, which relates to the opportunity for individual prosperity and success.

The action takes place in 1940s New York, with flashbacks to earlier times.

When still in his mid-teens Willy Loman (Anthony Lapaglia) started out as a salesman.

Photo by Jeff Busby

At age 63, he remains on the road, covering thousands upon thousands of kilometres. His territory is New England.

He is tired and washed up.

Willy was once the pride of his company, feted by the current owner Howard Wagner’s (Simon Maiden) father Frank, who has since passed.

Now working only on commission and seen by Howard as a liability, Willy doesn’t make enough to cover the household expenses.

In fact, he has to turn to his neighbour Charley (Steve Bastoni) for regular handouts, to pay his way.

Willy’s wife Linda (Alison Whyte) loves him dearly, despite his grumbles and worries.

Of late, Willy’s mind also appears to be going.

Not aware of his lack of standing with his boss, Linda urges Willy to ask Howard for an office job to lighten his load.

She and Willy have two adult children who are temporarily staying with them, sharing their old room.

Willy bemoans the fact that the elder, Biff (Josh Helman), has made nothing of himself.

He is but a transient farm hand, earning little money, when his providence could have been so different.

As a teenager, Biff was a football star, destined for a college scholarship until he flunked maths.

Then, his life started to unravel. He fell out with Willy, whom he still loves, but whenever they talk, they end up locking horns.

Willy’s younger son “Happy” (Sean Keenan) is a womaniser and a big talker, who has his eyes on a more prestigious job than he currently has.

Truth be told, despite pumping himself up, he is an assistant to the assistant buyer of a local store.

Happy would love to go into business with his brother. They come up with a plan, with Biff determined to approach a former employer for funding.

As Willy’s mental state continues to deteriorate, he has increasing visions of his older brother Ben (Richard Piper). The latter made a fortune in Africa by the time he was 21.

Friendless and losing all hope, Willy’s final blow comes at Howard’s hands, while the reception Biff receives from his former employer is equally shattering.

Anthony Lapaglia’s Australian stage debut couldn’t have been any more triumphant.

In a demanding lead role, Lapaglia’s gravelly-voiced representation of Willy Loman is a masterclass of push and pull, nuance and subtlety.

Loman is, at times, belligerent, obstinate, frustrated, enthusiastic and beaten. Lapaglia captures all with aplomb. He metamorphosises into a man whose fate is sealed.

Whyte is dynamic and assured as his devoted wife, conscious that all is far from right, but desperate to keep things together to see him through.

Josh Helman brings a sense of desperation to his role as an unfulfilled 34-year-old labourer who could never live up to his father’s expectations.

Sean Keenan channels a smooth communicator without substance, whose life’s station is hardly what he represents it to be.

Richard Piper imbues Willy Loman’s wealthy and successful dead brother Ben with self-importance. Ben has little time to listen to Willy’s overtures.

Steve Bastoni infuses Willy’s ongoing “provider” Charley with warmth, humour and heart.

Tom Stokes makes his mark by way of impressive sharp contrast – as Charley’s successful and measured son and hitherto as Biff’s frenzied classmate and friend.

Simon Maiden gives Howard a pragmatic, if somewhat dismissive, edge as Willy’s second-generation boss, with no time for “passengers”.

All cast members – including Elizabeth Blackmore, Manali Datar, Louisa Mignone and Grant Piro – perform strongly. There is no weak link in this highly accomplished production.

The single set design by Dale Ferguson is clever, evocative and utilitarian.

It represents seven rows of bleacher seats at Ebbets Field, with a coach’s box at the top.

The venue was home of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ baseball team until the 1950s and five professional football teams, including three NFL teams.

Miller’s script makes several references to Biff’s budding football career.

The set also allows most actors to be seated on stage for the entire show.

The production values, including sound and lighting design, elevate the spectacle.

Direction from Neil Armfield (who worked with Lapaglia on the film Holding the Man) and resident director Theresa Borg is exemplary.

For a play which is all but three hours, there is no let down. With few props, the action moves along at pace.

Its emotional resonance endures, all the more so given the current state of the world and how difficult it is for many to make ends meet.

A trip to Her Majesty’s Theatre to see Death of a Salesman is well rewarded.

It is playing until 15th October, 2023.


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