Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a classic of western theatre. It’s a grim account of the decline and fall of a family man, plagued by secrets, haunted by ghosts, hidebound by pride and handicapped by unrealistic expectations – his happiness punctured by the harsh reality of the American dream.

Miller's harrowing examination of a man coming apart at the seams and losing his faith in a system which has chewed him up and spat him out, would be emotional enough. This production at the Oxford Playhouse, however, is loaded with extra poignancy as it should have starred legendary actor, and friend of the Playhouse, Tim Piggott-Smith, who died in April.

His place in the lead role as Willy Loman is taken by the remarkable Nicholas Woodeson – a man who appears to have been born for the part.

He is, quite simply magnificent as the puffed-up one time hot-shot now witnessing the demise of his career and fracturing of his family.

One moment he sticks out his chest to proudly recount anecdotes of his popularity as a salesman and his pride in his favourite son Biff’s sporting achievements, the next he is a shrunken, crumpled man, wrestling with dementia, crushed by the system, and the firm, he once championed. It is dark but believable and all too familiar. Uncomfortably so.

This powerful production by the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, takes us into Willy’s head. Flashbacks take place in real time – Willy struggling to discern between the reality of the present and conversations with people from his past, including his two sons, who double as boisterous teenagers and womanising 30-somethings.

The boys, George Taylor as Biff and Ben Deery as Happy, are superb and thoroughly real New Yorkers in posture, speech and gesture. Both put in stellar performances, their energy countering Willy’s confused disintegration while harbouring secrets of their own.

Another towering figure is the ghost of Willy’s dead older brother Ben – played suitably by Mitchell Mullen: a bear of a man, who appears to have strode in straight from the back country. The embodiment of the American dream, who got rich in Alaska and on diamonds in the jungle, he is everything Willy isn’t.

The setting is minimal – just a neon sign spelling out 'Land of the Free', a fridge (doubling cleverly for a hotel wardrobe), a bed, table and chairs – all of which remain throughout. There is nothing minimal in the performances though, nor the powerful underlying message.

And as the stage darkens, and the American dream, embodied by that neon sign, starts to fizz and go out, we follow Willy's downfall through his own eyes. And it’s a real choker.


*Death of a Salesman continues at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday.