Dangerous Corner – October 2014

Experience: 7/10

By J B Priestley

Directed by Michael Attenborough

A Bill Kenwright Production

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 17th October 2014

This is one of my favourite Priestley plays, so it doesn’t take much for me to have a good time, but this was still a decent production. The performances were fine, and the set was a lovely 1930s style drawing room; Art Deco dripped from every item. A large circular rug in the middle of the stage had a diamond inlay pattern – at first, in the pre-performance gloom, we suspected it was part of the wooden floor – with a sofa on the right and two comfy chairs on the left. The fireplace on the far left had a square wooden mantelpiece and a brightly painted folding screen stood beside it. The double doors at the centre back were flanked by tall bookcases; their glass doors had wooden diamond-shaped inserts which were echoed by the panes of the two tall windows far right. Various tables, chairs and other furnishings completed the picture of a well-to-do family drawing room of the period, and the mood was enhanced by the contemporary music played before the start.

There was no messing with the play either, not that it’s possible to do that when the structure is so perfect and so important. The audience was supportive as well, gasping a little at the revelation just before the interval, as well as laughing heartily at the humour of the restart. We were in the front row, and so close to the action we felt we were practically in the same room, fortunately without being interrogated ourselves. The reprise was nicely done, and when Gordon found the dance music on the radio, the discrepancy regarding the cigarette box was easily smoothed over. They then mimed for a bit before taking their bows – Charles Stanton asked the various ladies for a dance and was refused by Betty and Freda, while Olwen chose to drift past him and dance with Robert instead. They sashayed for a while to the music, moving towards the front of stage while the rest of the cast stayed out of their way, and then they all came forward for their bows. Since it’s charity week at the theatre (although this is the first time we were propositioned, surprisingly) Michael Praed stopped the applause – an unusual thing for an actor to do as he acknowledged – and gave us the necessary information as to why buckets would be rattling at us as we made our way out. One final burst of clapping and we were done. A good end to the playgoing week.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

 

Eden End – June 2011

6/10

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

Time And The Conways – May 2009

6/10

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

Dangerous Corner – June 2007

6/10

By: J B Priestley

Directed by: Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th June 2007

This was a reasonably good production, by Connaught standards. Unlike the previous version we saw in London, the set was very 1930s, with bookcases, old leather chairs, and fire seats. Unfortunately, they were having technical problems tonight (first night in Worthing), and so we were late getting in, and the music was also late to arrive, most notably when the musical cigarette box stayed stubbornly silent during the reprise of the opening scene. The radio also came on seconds after everyone turned to look at it. Very embarrassing.

Despite these difficulties, the performances were OK, and I still enjoyed the gradual unravelling of the plot. I forgot to get one of the audio machines tonight, so I did miss some of the dialogue, mostly during the opening scene when everyone seemed muted, but Shirley Anne Field was definitely underpowered. The reprise actually seemed louder – perhaps they’d got up a good head of steam by then. Of course, with the lack of music on cue, the sense of a different outcome was considerably weakened – I’m sure they’ll be working to get rid of those glitches asap.

I particularly liked Georgina Sutton as Frieda, the wife who’s still in love with dead Martin, as she got across both good manners and obsessive passion, with a nice line in bitching as well. Everyone else was up to scratch, and if only the audience had been better (hearing aid twittering, loud coughing, fidgeting, snoring, etc), we’d have enjoyed ourselves a lot more.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me