The Man Who Had All the Luck wasn't so lucky for its creator: Arthur Miller's first Broadway production shut after five days in 1944 following dismal reviews, and threatened to nip his career in the bud. It hasn't been performed much at all since then, which is unfair. This revival in Miller's centenary year by the top notch young theatre company End of Moving Walkway (founded only eighteen months ago) shows that it is much more than just an early curiosity for those interested in how Miller's mind developed, though it is worth seeing for that alone.
Set in a small Midwestern town, themes found in more famous Miller are here in spades: most notably, the exploration of pre-ordained fate versus the ability to forge one's own destiny; and, secondly, a father's problematic relationship with his two sons. In this parable-like play these two themes are inextricable. Having absurdly discerned a sporty physique in Amos, his baby son, this father then spent twenty years trying to nurture Amos to become a rich and famous professional baseball player. By contrast, the dad left his other son, the now twenty-two year-old car mechanic David, relatively free from his well-meaning interference. But David turns out to have all the luck and get the good breaks in life, while Amos is stuck in groundhog day. Everything Dave touches turns to gold without him trying, or even realising it at the time. David starts to feel debilitatingly guilty about his brother's failure, and that his own run of luck is bound sooner or later to be obliterated by some impending catastrophe.
Jamie Chandler's studied, thoughtfully well-rehearsed portrayal of the central character of David leaves nothing to chance. He skilfully shows David's evolution over the play's three-year timescale from young, impractical and fairly clueless optimist to old-before-his-time, mentally tormented fatalist. "What is it about me? I never…I never lose," he says early into this journey of self-discovery. His hesitation and repetition of "I never" are crucial for they reveal in one tense moment everything you need to know about his state of mind. Rather than enjoying all his good fortune, Chandler's David worries incessantly about it and descends into a despair of anxious facial expressions and shouty outbursts as the production progresses.
David, like all the characters, is swept along unwittingly by events, but it's clear that he (like Amos) could change his predicament if he were to act differently. Nevertheless, the recurring metaphor in the play of mankind's helplessness -- jellyfish being constantly swept in and out by the tide -- is a painful reminder of outside forces influencing the direction of peoples' lives. In the second half director Paul Lichtenstern cleverly rams this point home by plastering the King's Head's small stage with the final page of the play's text in supersized font, underneath the actors' feet. This trick gives a powerful (and depressing) sense that, try as they might to write their own life scripts during the action leading up to it, their script has already been written.
Decent performances in period dress of gingham and gangster suits come from a supporting cast including Keith Hill as the father, Michael Kinsey as the waste-of-space Amos, and Chloe Walsh as David's partner Hester. Given the minimalist set, repetitive piano notes and chords (co-composed by Lichtenstern and Mike Smaczylo) add effectively to the mood at key moments. By successfully tackling one of this great playwright's lesser works, End of Moving Walkway has built on the good reputation it established last year when it was nominated for various off-West End awards.