David Suchet is the headliner in this potent revival of Arthur Miller’s 1968 sibling play. Unshaven, dishevelled and downright dusty, he plays the 89-year-old Jewish furniture dealer Solomon, as unlike the neat, clipped and slightly effete Hercule Poirot – the role for which he is still known the world over – as it is possible to imagine. Yet on closer examination, the two roles have something in common: a forensic eye for detail and a deep understanding of human nature, talents that for decades Solomon has used to close his deal.
For this one he has been summoned to a condemned New York brownstone in order to value an attic full of family furniture. It belonged to the parents of NYPD sergeant Victor Franz. It was Victor (Brendan Coyle) who found Solomon’s number in an old phone book and unwittingly called Solomon out of retirement and to the top floor of his childhood home.
His arrival is announced by what Suchet has described as the greatest opening line of any character he has played. This from an actor whose George, opposite Diana Rigg’s Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has gone down in London theatre history, as has his Shylock. This play has already been running for nigh on half an hour before Solomon gets to say his line. It comes as he shuffles into the attic in which all the action is set, breathless after all those stairs. Designer Simon Higlett has festooned the room with furniture that hangs from the ceiling like exotic fungi. As Suchet’s Solomon’s wheezes his way into the scene, Victor’s wife offers him some water. “Water I don’t need,” says the old man. “A little blood I could use.”
It’s a line that could have come straight out of a Neil Simon play. And not just any Neil Simon play, but Barefoot in the Park, which was on Broadway five years before Miller’s play was first seen. It too is set on the top floor of a New York townhouse whose stairs make everyone who climbs them fight for breath.
Solomon might be Miller’s funniest character. Yet with Jonathan Church’s production – first seen at the Theatre Royal, Bath – there are almost two plays in this single drama. One is the very funny first act, which is littered with Solomon’s one-liners. The second is an excoriating reckoning between Victor and his estranged brother Walter (Adrian Lurkis), a successful – that is to say, rich – doctor whose career was made possible by Victor, who stayed at home to look after their widowed father instead of studying to be a scientist so that Victor could go to college. At least, that’s Victor’s version of events. And such is his pent-up resentment about his low-achieving life, you can almost see the chip on that part of his uniform where higher-ranking cops sport an epaulette.
But of course, this being Miller, no one is allowed to live the myths and lies they construct about themselves in order to live a less blameworthy life without them being challenged. In most other dramatists' hands, a play about an inheritance would be about the proceeds of the sale. And granted, Victor and his wife Esther (Sara Stewart) could certainly do with a windfall from the sale of the furniture. But the fight between the brothers here is not about money, but memory. And as uncomfortable truths are exposed, Walter is brutally confronted with his selfishness and Victor the martyrdom with which he defines himself.
Meanwhile Suchet as the wise – and wise-cracking – Solomon conveys a gathering desperation for the deal to go ahead. For him, the furniture is a lifeline out of the slow death of retirement that rude health has inconveniently lengthened. And Stewart is also terrific as Victor’s long-suffering wife, the collateral damage caused by the brothers’ feud. Her loyalty to Victor is simultaneously strained and unbreakable.
But for me it’s Coyle’s cop that sticks in the mind. This no-nonsense, straight-talking pragmatist is proud of his 40 years on the force. Yet, as he browses the objects of his past, something about the way he absentmindedly plucks the string of his mother’s harp suggests two other lives – the one he used to live in the house of his childhood, and the one he never got to live as an adult.