The Roundabout review – stylish return for early Priestley play

Park theatre, London
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’

Can drawing-room comedy be a vehicle for social commentary? That is the question posed by this early, unknown JB Priestley play written in 1931 and now stylishly revived by Hugh Ross. It has its moments, but you feel the domestic crises of a bankrupt aristo, which provide the main theme, fit oddly with Priestley’s glancing references to the state of the nation.

The play certainly reflects its time: 1931 saw the British economy in freefall and faith in the Soviet Union eroded by reports of Stalin’s show trials. Priestley tries to knit these events together by showing a desperate day in the country-house life of Lord Kettlewell. Not only are his shares now worthless, but his privacy is invaded by his estranged wife, a discarded mistress and a daughter he hasn’t seen in years. The last of these, Pamela, turns out to be a bright-eyed communist newly returned from the USSR and accompanied by a fellow ideologue who rejoices in the name of Comrade Staggles. The difficulty is that Priestley tries to have it both ways: he satirises, especially through the figure of a comically mercenary titled lady of the decadent upper class, while glibly sending up the young communists who are shown to be romantics or sybarites at heart.

Steven Blakeley  as Comrade Staggles
Much-mocked ... Steven Blakeley as Comrade Staggles. Photograph: Robert Workman/Park Theatre

The one character Priestley does adore, and who has all the best lines, is a parasitical survivor of the Edwardian era, played with a perfect rumpled insouciance by Hugh Sachs. Accused of jumping to conclusions, he announces “it is the only exercise I get”. It is Pamela, however, who drives the action. She is played with relentless vivacity by Bessie Carter, who is just out of drama school, and who will have a fine future once she learns the art of repose. Steven Blakeley also makes something touching out of the much-mocked Staggles whose red-eyed political fervour conceals profound lust and a taste for a fine brandy.

You can see why the play was forgotten. Priestley never reconciled its comic and serious elements, but I was glad to have seen it, if only for the glimpse of what Auden dubbed “a low, dishonest decade”.

  • At the Park theatre, London, until 24 September. Box office: 020-7870 6876.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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