Cornelius – review

Finborough, London

Often pigeonholed as a comfortable, middlebrow dramatist, JB Priestley was in reality a restless experimenter – which may be why this play, although dedicated to and starring Ralph Richardson, ran for only seven weeks in 1935. Revived now for the first time, it's an intriguing piece that not only offers a vivid picture of office life, but also addresses the dire problems facing small businesses in the economic blizzard of the 1930s.

The eponymous hero is partner in a struggling import firm, on the verge of bankruptcy, that sells aluminium. Cornelius is both a romantic, who would rather read HM Prescott's The Conquest of Peru than a ledger-book, and also a realist: confronted by the firm's creditors, he launches into a passionate tirade against an international capitalist system that turns modest private trade into a "lunatics' obstacle race". Priestley clinches his argument by showing how Cornelius's partner, out on the road touting for business, is turned into a suicidal forerunner of Arthur Miller's Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Even if Priestley occasionally lapses into cliche, as in his portrait of the desiccated secretary nursing a hopeless passion for the widowed hero, he provides a combative state-of-the-nation play at a time when British drama was filled with gossamer-light escapism.

He also comes up with a monumental leading role, which Alan Cox here fills to the brim, conveying the pipe-smoking decency of a man who will do anything to stop the firm going bust out of loyalty to his partner. At the same time, Cox suggests Cornelius is a poet and dreamer who sees through the futility of petty commerce and yearns for a life of adventure. It is a wonderfully two-toned performance well supported in Sam Yates's lively production by Col Farrell as a methodical pen-pusher, Annabel Topham as the love-smitten secretary and Beverley Klein as a grumbling cleaner for whom Eastbourne represents utopia. The public in 1935 may have flocked instead to Novello's Glamorous Night, but Priestley's socialist time-bomb offers far more substance.

Michael Billington

Until 8 September. Box office: 0844 847 1652.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Eden End – review
This vivid production of JB Priestley's slightly plodding family drama is English minor-key Chekhov, writes Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

08, Jun, 2011 @11:47 AM

Time and the Conways – review

JB Priestley's bold and poignant 1937 drama is brilliantly acted and full of wonderful detail, writes Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher

11, Mar, 2013 @5:48 PM

They Came to a City – review
This fascinating social document first produced in 1943 is no lost masterpiece, but gets a neat and atmospheric staging, writes Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

09, May, 2011 @4:03 PM

Article image
The Roundabout review – stylish return for early Priestley play
JB Priestley never reconciled the comic and serious elements in this 1931 play, which gives a glimpse of what Auden dubbed ‘a low, dishonest decade’

Michael Billington

26, Aug, 2016 @11:43 AM

Article image
When We Are Married review – Barrie Rutter toasts Priestley perennial
Northern Broadsides offer a surprisingly genial take on the tale of three couples whose silver wedding party descends into confusion

Alfred Hickling

15, Sep, 2016 @12:39 PM

Article image
An Inspector Calls review – Stephen Daldry helps make the case for justice
A timely revival of Daldry’s expressionistic staging of JB Priestley’s moral thriller repeats its plea for a fairer and more compassionate world

Lyn Gardner

13, Nov, 2016 @2:47 PM

Article image
An Inspector Calls | Theatre review

Novello, London
Stephen Daldry's production is still brilliantly accusatory, but does it let the modern era off too lightly, asks Brian Logan

Brian Logan

28, Sep, 2009 @9:45 PM

Article image
Theatre review: Time and the Conways / Lyttelton, London

Lyttelton, London
It is Priestley's broad human sympathy that seems more significant than his intellectual theories, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

05, May, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Summer Day's Dream – review

JB Priestley's tale of a post-nuclear Britain is prescient, with its premonitions of modern life, and quietly passionate about this island's charms, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

10, Sep, 2013 @5:28 PM

Editorial: In praise of ... JB Priestley
Editorial: The 21st century is catching up with Priestley's preoccupations in ways that would have pleased him greatly

Editorial

05, May, 2009 @11:24 PM