Sunday, 8 May 2016

Review I've Been Here Before

I've Been Here Before
by J B Priestley

For The Children

A famous searingly prescient newspaper cartoon of 1919 by Will Dyson shows statesmen leaving the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War turning towards a naked infant weeping behind a pillar, by the child the peace treaty discarded on the floor. Above the innocent toddler reads a sign. "1940 Class".

This came to mind watching J B Priestley's I've Been Here Before. In 1937 when this play was first performed (with performances still needing the permission of the Lord Chamberlain) people had been there before.

And indeed the time travelling play is an impassioned plea, in retrospect in vain, to intervene and take control of destiny before it was too late.

Director Anthony Biggs orchestrates a crisp, carefully-thought-out production at the bijou Jermyn Street Theatre.

The fuel driving this play is the anguish over attempts to mitigate  the era's wars, economic woes and subsequent unspeakable cruelties with academic theory and expediency. Far from adhering slavishly to a theory of predestination, in the play's final act there is a fervent appeal to break away from the predicted unhappy endings. 

Set in hostelry, The Black Bull, on the Yorkshire Moors, a German refugee, a former science professor (Edward Halsted), without the international prestige of an Einstein,  at first finds no room at the inn.

However ambushed by cancellations over the Whitsun weekend, the landlord (Keith Parry) and his widowed daughter (Vicky Binns), already lodging the headmaster (lantern-jawed Daniel Souter) of a recently founded school for bright local boys,  find themselves taking in not only the Professor but  a local businessman (David Schaal), a school benefactor,  and his young wife (Alexandra Dowling).

At the time refugees could even be deported back to continental Europe from Britain. Fascist regimes were taking over Spain and Italy and the National Socialists consolidating in Germany.

This raised trade and stock exchange issues with new partnerships and alliances construed in the play as a love affair and elopement, suicide and intervention also taking on double meanings.

And the landlord's grandson with a scholarship to the boarding school could be said to be of the 1940 class. Mention of experimentation, starvation and drug testing are more explicit.

Firmly anchored in its time, I've Been Here Before is given an admirably straightfoward production with precise, clearly defined performances from the whole cast.

This precision is also reflected in the ingeniously simple but effective design by Cherry Truluck and Alberta Jones.

The pale blue stage is curved like half of a planetary ring, with several audience seats in the middle.The placing of the furniture into different positions after each of the two intervals completes the illusion of a revolving orbit and passing time. With blue, gray and lavender costuming, all in all, it's an elegant production.

Priestley was a playwright and political activist whose skill, using a fashionable theory of time as a vehicle, in bringing forward facts and conclusions otherwise unpalatable to British audiences and those in authority cannot be underestimated.

Despite its mystical overlay, it struck TLT as having someting in common with the events of Noël Coward's Still Life, the basis for the movie Brief Encouner,  or Terence Rattigan's later The Browning Version, couching seismic upheavals in a domestic framework.
I've Been Here Before is an intricate literary attempt to avert the fate laid out for the 1940 class. Yet it is still imbued with sadness and awareness of the political reality as a failing British Empire government wavered and blinded itself, falling back on an aristocratic parochial piecemeal parish structure. A green light.

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