They Came to a City – review

Southwark Playhouse, London

In theatre and literature, visions of dystopian futures have overtaken utopian ones, but rewind 70 years to the darkest days of the second world war and JB Priestley was imagining a postwar world that could be a paradise.

His play, which takes its title from Walt Whitman's The City, was first produced in 1943 and has seldom been revived. It brings together nine characters from across British society who are flung together in a Sartre-like netherworld. They are allowed access to a golden city for just one day, during which they must decide whether to stay. There's the elderly cockney char, the titled dodos, the self-made businessman, the middle-class banker dominated by a disappointed wife, and two youngsters, the rebellious shop girl, Alice, and the thoughtful seaman, Joe, who dreams of revolution but doubts the human capacity to create a better world.

The stock characters are the least interesting aspect of a play that provides a fascinating social document but, as drama, is often a bit dull and formulaic. It's no forgotten masterpiece, but it gets a neat and atmospheric staging from Robert Laycock that sits well in the bricked arches of the Playhouse.

In a strong cast, James Robinson and Charlotte Donachie are particularly good as the pair who dream of "something wonderful" but know they have to make it themselves. Watched with hindsight, the sense of opportunities squandered in the postwar era is poignant, but the biggest laugh of the evening comes when the businessman explains capitalism to the city's inhabitants, only to be told: "We call that crime."


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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