The American Clock at the Old Vic: Tedious Tick-Tocking For Three Hours

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Arthur Miller’s The American Clock at the Old Vic, a play about the impact of the Depression on families living in 1930s America.

When you lie awake at two in the morning unable to sleep, noises are amplified. Against the obnoxious revving of a car engine or the neighbour’s dog barking, is there anything as annoying as hearing a watch or clock slowly tick down the hours awake? 2am. 3am. 4am. Though the cast put in committed performances, whilst watching The American Clock at the Old Vic I was reminded of the tedious monotony of lying in bed, in the darkness and bored, and listening to a clock tick-tock, and tick-tock, and tick-tock for far too long.

The American Clock is participating in an informal Arthur Miller season in the West End. David Suchet can currently be seen in The Priceat the Wyndham’s Theatre, Sharon D. Clarke will soon be starring in Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic directed by Marianne Elliott, and All My Sons, starring Sally Field and Bill Pullman, is next to arrive at the Old Vic. You would be forgiven for not being familiar with Miller’s work other thanDeath of a Salesman and All My Sons, the former is a tragedy of the common man whilst the latter pushes at the social institution of the family. The American Clock does both but poorly. We must acknowledge that even Shakespeare had bad days and wrote bad plays, and so too (evidently) did Miller.

‘Clarke Peters leads the ensemble of around twenty actors with verve and style’

Set during the Depression of the 1930s, audiences watch the Baum family suffer. Young Lee watches the wealth of his mother and father diminish, and the biographical history behind the play is palpable: Miller’s father suffered at the hands of the Depression, which then prompted a taunt relationship between his parents. Director Rachel Chavkin has expanded the range of Miller’s original by casting the Baum family three times over. The implied effect is to emphasise America’s diversity but in actuality what emerges is an unfocused piece with misapplied pressure: we never feel as if we truly know any of the characters.

Yet, this is the result of Miller’s writing. The privacy of the home is contrasted with a series of public events. Auctions, conversions in pubs and bars, queues at the job centre and a game of cards among friends are all interweaved into the terse depiction of familial misery and it is here one feels Miller is trying to make his larger statements. Dialogues about race, nationalism, the economy, Capitalism, and Marxism all occupy these stunted scenes, but where does that leave the family? We are presented with neither a Willy Loman nor the Keller family but, instead, a mass of people, the impetus for whose social commentary feels unwarranted and unearned, and our responses to whom are consequently disappointing. 

A revolve is often used, the speed with which it moves providing an ironic contrast to the slow pacing of the show that lasts just under three hours. Ann Yee’s choreography to the upbeat music is impressive, with the dance competition used as a neat metaphor for the energetic but constant pressures of ensuring one keeps dancing and moving. The real competition, simply, is to stay alive during the Depression. Herein lies the strength of this production: the ensemble cast put in sound performances. Fred Haig’s singing is tonally golden and melts like the butter the Baum family couldn’t afford, whilst the desperation of tap-dancing Ewan Wardrop works very well. Clarke Peters leads the ensemble of around twenty actors with verve and style, but the show is just too long for audiences to care about all these individuals.

‘Fred Haig’s singing is tonally golden’

It is the length and misdirection of The American Clock that makes it rather dreary viewing. What would be a powerful and particularly Miller-esque ending is succeeded by a further fifteen minutes of speeches. Too often unnamed characters whom we have no interest in speak about topics that are clearly important, but their lecturing does not fit.

Chavkin is clearly not scared of large-scale productions, as evidenced by her recent work on Hadestown at the National Theatre. In The American Clock, Miller clearly knew what he wanted to say, but perhaps the catharsis of writing his own experience proved too much. The issue, then, is not with the cast at all, nor overly with the creatives, but Miller’s work itself. Chavkin might have exercised a stronger red pen, but in this instance, regrettably, the problem is that the source material does not stand up.  

Indeed, those younger characters that suffer in The American Clock are often aspiring artists, such as singers, composers and writers. This and an unsubtle and rather awkward literary allusion imply Miller’s focus. As one of her seven characters, Francesca Mills (whose eyes often have a devilishly-mischievous look) says that on the radio the answer to a question was Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’. With a speaker looking into the titular churchyard, Gray’s poem celebrates the labouring classes, offering the suggestion that ‘Some mute inglorious Milton’ may lie buried beneath his feet. The clock has stopped ticking, but this is certainly not Paradise Lost. 

2.5/5

The American Clock is at the Old Vic until the 30th March, 2019.

Feature and production photographs by Manuel Harlan.


Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk

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