Posts Tagged ‘J. B. Priestley’

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

May 11, 2011

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.)

2 for 1 offer on “When We Are Married” at Garrick Theater

January 18, 2011

The Metro is having a push for the closing days of the J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married at the Garrick Theater with two for one tickets on Tuesday to Friday performances up to 11th February. To get this deal call 0844 412 4662 and quote “Metro Offer.” It says terms and conditions apply but doesn’t say what they are. This show got a very positive review from the West End Whingers so I’d consider the time and money worth the investment – I’ve been meaning to see it for ages but just haven’t had the right combination of time and money. Be advised the show ends 26th February 2011 so if you’re not tempted to see it by this deal you’ll want to hurry up and make your plans soon anyway or you’ll miss out.

Review – An Inspector Calls – The Novello Theatre

September 23, 2009

I was highly intrigued by the thought experiments built into JB Priestly’s Time and the Conways, and thus was quite enthused that an opportunity to see another play he’d written nearly at the same time came just a few months later. An Inspector Calls is quite the warhorse, and I’d always assumed it was a lumbering beast very much of the Mousetrap variety – a heavyhanded mystery designed to please the punters.

What it is is sort of Shaw meets Albee with a heavy dose of George Grosz. The family at the center of this tale is the moralistic nouveau riche (circa 1910) who, in rising above their moderate origins, seemed to have become even more harsh and hateful to those they left behind; they’re joined by a young man of old money whose looking to marry the wealthy, flighty daughter.

And then, well, you know, “an inspector calls.” He’s researching the death of a young woman, though, of course, none of these nice people killed anyone! Or caused them to kill themselves. Or … well … maybe they’re not so nice as they like to think. Or maybe the girl never existed! Or maybe the inspector is just a figment of their collective imaginations! Really, who knows, but if you saw Time and the Conways you’ll have some idea of the kind of shenanigans that might be going on. It all makes for a very drama-filled two hours and guarantees lots of thoughtful post-show conversations on “what really happened.”

In some ways this script is so tight and powerful it seems likely to transcend any particular casting decisions, and yet I feel I have to single out the matriarch (Sandra Duncan) for providing the kind of bravura performance that leads me to declare London the English language theater capitol of the world. The woman packs more into a sniff than lesser beings throw into hours of simulated hysteria. Watching her go from utterly composed and coldly indifferent to the suffering of her lessers to childlike to positively demented is really just an incredible treat. I’d imagine this role would be one actresses would really fight for; but maybe it’s just that Ms. Duncan really knows how to own a stage.

I’m also thoroughly enchanted by the potentially heavy-handed set (by Ian MacNeil), which my husband felt too obviously represented the family’s fate. However, I adored its doll-house like proportions on the bizarrely perspectived stage (giant streetlamps in front, tiny ones and a truly wee little house in back), and I was thrilled when it opened down the middle to let the story take place inside. It made it even more fun that it continued to be a damned small house for full sized adults to be standing in. And then near the end, ZOW! I have to say (without saying) that I’ve never actually seen a set do quite that before. Finally, at the very end, the entire, utterly corrupt family is back in the house with their heads poking out the tiny windows, all laughing hysterically – like a scene out of a painting of the Weimar years. (The use of mixed semi-historical Edwardian clothes with 40s costumes on the non-family members just didn’t work for me at all, but, you know, with such solid acting, I couldn’t really get that worked up about it other than to note that it was a pigheaded decision that thankfully didn’t keep me from enjoying the show.) And, W00t, less than two hours running time, thank YOU Mr. Priestly for making it possible for me to go to a show on a school night.

Brief props have to go to for giving me this show and a dinner for a mere 20 quid a pop. Dinner was good but I am miffed at the restaurant for “upgrading” J to a large beer and thus doubling the cost of our drinks bill (and then saying he should have sent it back instead of admitting any fault in assuming a large). That said, the Novello upgraded us to FLOOR seats when I was only expecting crappy 2nd balcony, so any foul taste in my mouth was utterly gone the minute I picked up the tickets, and by tomorrow all I’ll remember was what a top-notch show it was – really and truly what every person who comes to London and wants to see “a good show” ought to be seeing. I guess we’ll say that this one is recommended – it’s not life-changing but it sure was a good night out!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009. An Inspector Calls continues at the Novello through November 14th.)

Review – Time and the Conways – National Theatre

July 10, 2009

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of getting to see the National Theatre’s production of Time and the Conways for a mere £10. It had received a positive review from the West End Whingers, but its 3 hour running time – and, admittedly, cost – had put me off. However, with an offer for £10 tickets in hand, I decided to overcome my reservations and go see this show.

I’m glad I made the effort: for all its running time is longer than I can usually manage on school nights, Time and the Conways is a good show, despite having a director who apparently didn’t quite trust the words to make good theater and a second act that suffers from some seriously ham-fisted acting.

The family’s evolving relationships, shown in act-
length flashes (1919, 1939, and again 1919) were fascinating. Though it was heartbreaking to see people who seemed to love each other (act 1) so much brought down by spite and ego in the second act (1939), it made the third act ring more truthfully. There may have been a moment in time when all of the members of the family enjoyed each other’s company and were full of hope for the future; but once the lens of the future and its failings was put into your eyes, it was impossible to see the joys of the final 1919 scene looking rosy (and a good thing too as it was practically dripping with sap in Act 1). In fact, 1919 had the painful nostalgia I associate with looking at cherry blossoms in Japan – an appreciation for lovely things whose time will soon pass. And birthday girl Kay (Hattie Morahan)’s vision of what the future will hold for her family … I couldn’t tell if she was suffering because of what she knew or because she was wanting to undo it.

The shortcomings of this play were twofold. First, at times the acting was just “too too.” I couldn’t decide if Joan (Lisa Jackson) was pretending to be a person who liked to act like she was in a movie (as it seemed in Act One) or if the script actually called for her to make her character look like a silly numpty who had to overdramatize her feelings; at any rate, it was painful to watch. I also disliked most of the cast’s “aged” versions of themselves in act 2. Madge (Fenella Woolgar) had gone all floppy and slouchy, while Kay, who’d spent all of Act 1 being luminous and agile, suddenly looked like she had a pole thrust at an angle from her shoulderblades and hipbones and was attempting to convey 40 by standing at an angle and holding a cigarette. Adrian Scarborough, as Ernest Beevers, was, however, perfect as a short bully who had come into money as he had always hoped – but I found the evolution of his wife, the former Hazel Conway (Lydia Leonard). Perhaps his character had, in fact, changed very little, but I couldn’t fathom Hazel as the broken creature of act 2. (I think Priestly is to blame on this point, mostly.)

More annoying, however, was the director (Rupert Goold)’s ridiculous showy “end of act” moments that treated the audience as if they had no ability to think and process the words of the script and possibly had only ever seen movies before. The end of act 2 “mirror dance,” in which (I think) Kay attempts to convey the concept of living in multiple times simultaneously, was an ugly bit of choreography and wholly unnecessary. Worse than this was the end of act 3, in which Kay and her brother Alan (Paul Ready) do another sort of dance with video projections of themselves. I frequently loathe relying on cinematic innovations for theater; I feel like it shows a lack of trust in the text and is, in fact, a way of trying to do something in a simple and dull way rather than letting theatrical magic (the suspension of disbelief) take place. Much like A.I., this play would have been so much better if it had just stopped at the proper ending place instead of sitting there and beating us on the head to make sure we understood what Priestly was trying to do. Shame on you, Rupert Goold – just because you have the budget and the equipment doesn’t mean you should do it.

This was, however, probably only 5 or so minutes of the entire play, so I think I can give it a recommendation overall. A bit overproduced, as shows at the National sometimes are, but Time and the Conways is a strong script that has performances (and a story) strong enough to compensate for its shortcomings. I was lucky to get tickets for £10, but I think it would certainly be worth paying more to see it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009. It continues through August 16th.)