Review – They Came to a City – New Actors Company at Southwark Playhouse

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This is my fourth J.B. Priestley play, and I chose to see the production at Southwark Playhouse not because of their attractive pricing policy, but because I’m interested in his themes (much as I am for Shaw’s work). An Inspector Calls nicely captured the effect that the actions of the rich have on the poor within an extraordinary compelling narrative; what, then, would a playwright with these concerns chose to do with a play about a group of people discovering a “brave new world” outside of the limits of the class-bound (and money-obsessed) society we live in?

The results, I’m afraid to say, were rather like Major Barbara meets Atlas Shrugged with a touch of Waiting for Godot, with Shaw providing the politics, Rand the dialogue, and Beckett the dramatic tension. The plot has a group of people of various classes (seemingly dealt out of deck of Standard English Types) show up in a nowhere zone, spend most of the first act trying to figure out what to do with themselves, then the second act deciding if the fantastic city they all visited (while we were off having ice creams or, in my case, a much needed stiff drink) was the best or worst place they had ever been to. Seemingly every word that came out of their mouths was preordained; they were “types” dealign with a “situation,” what was the point of developing them as characters? Yes, there was a bit of a romance, there was tension between a few people, but the point of it all was to get people in situations where they could make the points the author wanted to make about our flawed capitalist society, and that wasn’t any more interesting than John Galt’s mind-numbing speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged.

My “suspension of disbelief,” necessary to deal with a show in which nine people magically show up in a limbo-land (kind of a purgatory, actually), was made even more difficult by the cloddishness of the lighting and sound effects. As each character appeared, they got a spotlight shone on them and a bit of dramatic music was played. Only … it wasn’t dramatic, it was funny, tinny and weak, like a recording of a radio play. It made me laugh. And every time a new character appeared, the same sound was repeated. It made it impossible for me to take the premise seriously right from the start. And while the smoke that filled the auditorium was supposed to add to the otherworldliness of it all (I’m assuming), in fact it just enhanced the sort of moldy atmosphere of the Southwark Playhouse Vault space. (Not recommended for asthmatics.) Then the “glow” of the city over the wall, the glaring bright light of the exit at the end of act two … it was just lacking in subtlety at a level I hadn’t experienced in a play in London in rather a while.

Many of the individual performances were quite fine (I think Thomas Shirley was completely believable as banker Cudsworth and Jean Perkins wonderfully submerged in her Mrs Batley), though I giggled at the Victoria Beckham look chosen for the controlling Mrs Stritton (Jessica Francis). However, not a one of them managed to be dramatically compelling, to evolve – well, okay, Daniel Souter (as browbeaten Mr Stritton) actually developed a bit but not enough to make me engage with the show. I think this is very much Priestley’s fault. I am afraid to say that They Came to a City is really of interest to Priestley fans, and not too much at that, but despite its flaws I did feel like I got my £8 out of it. That said, it was still a struggle of an evening overall. I may be more particular about what Priestley shows I choose in the future after the disappointment of this and When We Are Married; apparently his work is much more variable in quality than I expected.

Unexpected comedy moment (not verbatim): banker Mr Stritton is asked, “You sure were popular down there! What was it you were saying that got such a big laugh from all of those people?” To which he replies, “I was explaining how our financial system works.” Oh how we laughed!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011. It continues through May 28th. Running time is about 2 hours but it feels much longer. For another take on this show, please see The West End Whingers.)

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