By: J B Priestley
Directed by: Laurie Sansom
Company: English Touring Theatre
Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton
Date: Tuesday 28th June 2011
From tonight’s performance, I would guess this is an early Priestley play which draws very strongly on Chekov, a kind of Uncle Vanya meets The Seagull in a remote Birmingham suburb. I have still to read the plentiful program notes, as theatres are too gloomy and font sizes too small for my eyesight these days. The performances all seemed fine, with one very good one, so we’re not sure if it was the rather predictable writing or something about the staging that just wasn’t right tonight. To be fair, the sudden heat wave didn’t help, as the theatre was so stuffy I found myself ‘resting my eyes’ a few times during the first half. Also, there was an unusual amount of noise from the audience, not just coughing but also a lot of creaky chair sounds, so perhaps we weren’t seeing this production at its best. Even so, I feel there’s more available from this play, and we’d both like to see it again if we get the chance.
The set was clearly for a touring production, with a circular platform holding the drawing room furniture, a set of stairs leading off from the centre back to the right, some steps front right leading to the garden, and a screen of wires hanging behind all this with a rectangular hole for the doorway. There were lots of lights hanging down just in front of this see-through screen, but apart from a bluish glow once or twice, neither of us could figure out what this was meant to represent. There was also a raised platform behind the screen, on the left, which was used for occasional tableaux, such as the opening section, and later when we saw Lilian, clearly upset, brushing her hair in her room. The furniture was period, which the dialogue told us, with a good deal of emphasis, was 1912, and one of the play’s themes was the juxtaposition of the characters’ bright hopes for the future with our knowledge of what’s just around the corner – very Chekhovian.
The house, Eden End, is the home of Dr Kirby. Apart from the two children currently under his roof – Lilian and Wilfred – there’s another daughter, Stella who ran away to be an actress some years ago. There’s also a housekeeper, Sarah, who’s the usual common sense, unconditional love for the children type of character, and visitors include Geoffrey Farrant, a former flame of Stella’s on whom Lilian is pinning her hopes, and Charles Appleby, Stella’s husband, another actor with a not-so-great career.
The opening scene was a bit dull, but it did establish who was who, that the mother had died, that Wilfred was working out in Africa, and the general political situation with the suffragettes vying for top billing with home rule for Ireland. The new-fangled telephone came in for a bit of use, and was clearly dividing opinion much as mobile phones do now.
Things really kicked off when Stella arrived back, leading to the family’s relationships and attitudes being re-examined and changed. Lilian makes the call that brings Stella’s husband down for a short stay, out of jealousy and a desire to reclaim Geoffrey for herself – never going to happen. Stella is hoping to find a safe haven back in the house she loved, amongst her family, and finally realises it’s not what she imagined all those years while she was on the road. Dr Kirby confides to her that he’s not long for the world, and with Wilfred heading back to Africa and looking forward to a promotion in say, 1916, Geoffrey leaving to make a new life for himself in Australia or similar, and Stella and her husband heading back to London, it looks like a lonely life for Lilian, with only Sarah for company once her father passes on. Bit of a downer, really.
In fact, it’s only the humour of the clash between the characters expectations of a better world in the making, and our own knowledge of the coming horrors of WWI, that keep our spirits up; that, and the lovely comedy of Daniel Betts’ performance as Charles Appleby. The scene where he and Wilfred stagger home, very late at night, trying to be quiet so as not to wake the household, and pinching Dr Kirby’s brandy, was very funny. Just before this, Charles and Wilfred did a song in front of the curtain, a music hall number about the army, I think, which set us up nicely for the next bit.
I found I was out of sympathy for a lot of the characters in this play. I was concerned that the doctor chose only to tell Stella about his illness – if she hadn’t turned up at that point, would he have told anyone? – and while Lilian’s behaviour wasn’t ideal, I felt that Stella complaining that Lilian didn’t understand the suffering she’d been through all those long years on tour, etc. etc., was all pot, kettle and black. Stella wasn’t taking into account the suffering she’d caused by her actions, particularly as she’d hardly bothered to keep in touch with the family during her absence – they hadn’t even known she was married! As often happens, the servant was about the only one I’d give tuppence for, which does make plays less engaging, I find. Still, there was enough of interest to keep me watching, and as we’re fond of Priestley, we still hope to see this one again, preferably in a more substantial production.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me