By J B Priestley
Directed by Rupert Goold
Venue: Lyttelton Theatre
Date: Wednesday 27th May 2009
As Steve was saying on the walk back to Waterloo, there are some dramatists you can adapt to your heart’s content, Shakespeare being the most obvious one, and others whose work is much more specific, and which doesn’t necessarily benefit from superfluous gimmickry or convoluted interpretations. Today’s offering was a case of the latter. Fortunately, despite the director ‘Goolding’ the lily with his usual filmic flourishes, the performance was enjoyable enough and the actors mostly did a fine job given the limitations of the production.
The opening sequence was one of those superfluous touches. The metal curtain opened to give us a viewing slit, and with a curtain drawn part way across we could only see a small section of the stage. One of the characters, Hazel, was carrying a suitcase full of clothes and apparently running across the stage (but actually staying on one spot) while some of the other characters moved past behind her, presumably as if they were standing still or just milling around. It wasn’t very effective from my angle, and the few lines were lost in all the hustle and bustle. Then she actually did run forward and off at the side, while the curtain was pulled back. This left us with a long narrow slit showing very little of the set, letterbox viewing gone mad. All I could see was the top of someone’s head, and nothing else for about a minute. Then the metal curtains opened fully and Hazel finally came bursting into the room with the suitcase. A long start, and not a particularly good one. Did the curtain not open when it was meant to? Was the delay intended for some meaningful reason? Or did the complicated opening delay the start because the stage crew had to clear stuff out of the way? I neither know nor care.
The first act unfolded pretty uneventfully, introducing us to the family, their situation (father dead, but family still well off and both sons home safe from the war) and the time period, just after WW1. (See, some writers do manage to tell us these things without too much trouble.) We also get to meet two friends of the family: Joan, a friend of Hazel’s with her beady eye fixed firmly on Robin, the younger son who’s just been demobbed and turns up towards the end of the act, and Gerald, the young lawyer who looks after the family’s legal affairs. Gerald has also brought along Earnest Beevers, an intense young man who would nowadays be called a stalker. He’s got it bad for Hazel, and puts up with the snobbish attitudes of most of the family in order to get to her. The only family member who’s nice to him is Carol, the youngest. There’s also Alan, the elder son who has seen action and is now working as a clerk for the local council, Madge, the eldest daughter who’s rather plain with a good mind and a passion for socialist ideals and reform, and Kay, the birthday girl, whose party we’re seeing. She wants to be a writer, though she hasn’t produced anything she’s happy with yet. And of course there’s Mrs Conway, family matriarch and temperamental diva, capable of great shows of loving and great cruelty, though we don’t see so much of that in this first act.
Everyone is having a wonderful time in that scatty upper middle class way – mercifully the charades are done off stage – and despite a few ominous comments, the tone is light-hearted and happy. With Mrs Conway singing for the guests as the final piece of entertainment (top of the bill, as usual) only Kay sits in the darkened drawing room, listening to the music and trying to get her thoughts and feelings down on paper. Suddenly she has one of her ‘turns’, and we get a freeze frame effect, with the actress, spotlit, on the central seat while the walls start to move and the room revolves, so that we see her from different angles. Then the lights go out. Visually, it’s quite a good effect, but it does have the disadvantage of disconnecting Kay from the older version in the next act. The ‘traditional’ version simply has her going over to the window and being in that same position at the start of the second act. This time, I don’t remember where she was in the room, so the placement clearly wasn’t as evocative for me.
The second act shows us the Conways twenty years on. Another war is looming and the slump after the last war has wiped out most of the value of the family’s assets, those which Mrs Conway hasn’t squandered on the profligate Robin, now unhappily married to Joan and avoiding her and their two kids as much as he can. Well, they’d get in the way of his drinking and complaining about how bad his luck has been. His mother looks as though she’s had a mild stroke, although it may just be bitterness that makes her mouth twist that way when she talks, and she appears to have a greater fondness for port than before.
Hazel has married Earnest, who is doing very well for himself and their family, but he doesn’t intend to help the Conways out with his hard earned cash. Hazel is clearly able to afford whatever she wants, is completely miserable and terrified of Earnest, although I didn’t see much reason for it in this production. Alan is still a clerk with the local council, and despite the contempt some of others have for him, he’s really the most successful and certainly the happiest of the Conways. Kay is a journalist for some paper which sends her out to get stories on film stars. She hasn’t written anything serious for years, and judging by this portrayal, she’s a dipso lesbian with a drug habit and a job in a very camp woman’s prison. Hattie Morahan’s facial grimaces made it hard to engage with this central character. She seemed like a caricature, and long before the comment was made on stage I wondered if the director was deliberately trying to turn this act into another family charade. If so, it didn’t work for me at all.
Hazel was also a bit over the top in this scene I felt, while Ma Conway can get away with anything, such is her character. The others were fine, but the overall effect was spoiled by the lack of balance and I found some bits dragging during this and the final act which never usually happens with a Priestley play, at least not for me.
The drawing room was appropriately empty-looking for this scene in the future. The signs of vanishing fortune were writ large on the bare walls and in the lack of furniture compared with Act 1. At the end of the second act, Kay is standing at the mirror, and again the walls move, but this time the mirror swings in at an angle, and we get a series of similar mirrors, suitably reduced in size, with other actresses dressed like Kay standing at them. There’s a nonsensical movement sequence that ripples down the line, and then the mantelpiece lights are switched off one by one to end the act – another puzzling and unnecessary interpolation.
The final act opens with Kay back in the freeze frame position. They’d cleverly arranged some papers so they could cascade onto the floor and stay there, in mid flight. When the action started up again, she pushed the papers all the way onto the floor, which looked quite effective. Next we get to see some of the events referred to in the second act, and some of the ways that some members of the family bring about the unhappiness of the future. We see how casually Mrs Conway ruins Madge’s best chance at a loving relationship, how Robin woos and wins Joan (not that she was resisting) and we get to see Carol again, the one missing from the second act and described by Earnest as the best of the lot. Kay starts up the kind of grimacing that explains a lot about her future facial expressions, as echoes of the future come back to her. She wants Alan to tell her the lines from William Blake that had given her some comfort in the future, but he doesn’t know them yet. Mrs Conway makes some comfortable and glorious predictions about the family members, accompanied by some more pointless choreographed movements from the girls, and then Kay slips through the curtains at the back with Alan following. Mrs Conway heads off to sing, and then things get really weird.
The lights go down, the curtain comes across, and then goes back again to reveal a smaller proscenium arch with curtains. It seems to represent the Conways’ bow window and curtains. Carol steps through and does a little dance to accompany her mother’s singing, then she goes off and the curtains are drawn back to show us a gauze screen which is used to project images of Alan and Kay, as well as having the actors themselves there, moving in such as way as to interact with their other selves. Lines from the play were repeated at this stage, presumably another attempt to be ‘meaningful’. However it was all pretty pointless and meaningless and was really turning me off, but finally it ended, the lights went out, and the whole performance came to an ignominious end. I held my applause till the actors were actually present on stage, as I didn’t feel the production deserved any reward. The cast had worked hard though, so I wanted to acknowledge them for that, and several performances were as good as they could be in the circumstances. Adrian Scarborough as Earnest and Faye Castelow as Carol were the best for me.
Looking back this evening, I find that writing these notes has reminded me how much was missing from this production. I wasn’t as emotionally engaged, the tweaks and twiddles didn’t add to my enjoyment or understanding and mostly took away from it, and I feel cheated somehow, as if the ‘real’ play is still waiting to come out. I’m glad the National have decided to embrace the dramatic tradition of this country once again, but I hope we get some better productions of these classic plays from them in the future.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me