Friday, 26 August 2016

Review The Roundabout

The Roundabout
By JB Priestley

A Day In The Country

Watching the rare revival of this 1931 play, a naughty thought crossed the mind of TLT. What if JB Priestlley, Oscar Wilde  (from beyond the grave), Bernard Shaw and Kaufman and Hart,  the latter probably by wire across the Atlantic, had got together and decided to write a piece for the stage as if one playwright and as a game of consequences?

For that's exactly what the plot and dialogue felt for us in this drawing room comedy, written originally for actress Peggy Ashcroft during a short-lived love affair with Priestley. Ashcroft passed on it and a subsequent production was mounted in Liverpool.

It's a strange, uneven script, given a solid production directed by Hugh Ross at Finsbury Park's Park Theatre, with an oddly mechanically zingy aphoristic feel, where the characters are vastly stronger than the plot. 

Aristocrat and financier Lord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe), although maintaining a substantial country house household, is insolvent and trying to reduce costs by discarding his mistress Hilda Lancicort (Carol Starks).

In the midst of his travails, he is ambushed by the arrival of his long-lost daughter Pamela (Bessie Carter), from whom, along with her mother Rose (Lisa Bowerman), he has been estranged for many years. 

Pamela has arrived after a trip to the Soviet Union, bringing with her fellow communist Staggles (Steven Blakeley) whose tough ideological stance disguises a rather more illegitimate appreciation of capitalist wine and women. 

An appreciation which oversteps the mark when he presses his unwanted attentions on the pretty maidservant Alice (Annie Jackson), behaving more like a licentious eighteenth century nobleman than then adherent of an austere cause  bringing equality to the masses.

The frailest of plots has a set simply but effectively indicating a Tudor-style mansion with overarching beams (designer:Polly Sullivan). But couched somewhere beneath it all is an a subtext dwelling on shifts in power - from painting and theatre to the mechanised medium of film, from silent movies to sound, the failure of the Soviet ideal, international politics alongside economic woes.  

All entangled as Parsons the butler (Derek Hutchinson), who has his own run of good luck cruelly snatched away, drunkenly observes, "in a shtate of gre-aet social confusion".

Nevertheless there's an oddly self conscious feel to the shifts as well in style and tone in the writing. While jolie laide Pamela pushes the plot along, the mournfully humorous leftover of imperial Edwardian Britain, down-at-heel idler Churton Saunders (Hugo Sachs) is like a silent movie character with a clear view but bypassed by events, but still tolerated on a small stipend on the studio lot. 

Meantime the inpecunious widowed Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey) shows an imperiously focussed saleswoman manner in drumming up business for her family with her own take on political events: "Communists, eh? Is there any money in it, because I'm looking for something for Agatha's younger girl - dreadfully plain, poor thing!".

Maybe the play was caught halfway between theatre and cinema and its own push between agitprop and entertainment. 

Comrade Staggles, a character in Blakeley's performance still with a decidedly modern if caricatural feel in our times, ostensibly talks about the bloated capitalist classes when we know Lord Kettlewell is on his uppers. 

But Staggles could just as well to be talking about the fake life of luxury portrayed on the big screen, "this rich, artificial sort of life, where you're eating and drinking all day, and all the women are parading their sexual charms." 

So, a bit of a curio in the Priestley canon in a production which sometimes still has to find its rhythm but with strong enough characterisations and performances to carry it through to the upper ranges of an amber light.

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