Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 21 May 2016
SUPERNATURAL, PHILOSOPHICAL, YET YORKSHIRE ALL THE WAY…
Of all the lessons theatre has taught us about the backwash of WW1, some of the most fascinating are in 1930’s plays, often here. If you want to feel Auden’s “low dishonest decade”, with its troubled angry survivors, struggling widows and reckless gropings for an individual-centred sexual code, then trawl contemporary plays.
Here it is J B Priestley, deploying the same mixture of bluff socialist morality and supernatural spookiness as in An Inspector Calls. Antony Biggs puts his audience, quirkily, round a crypto-revolve – a blue arc on which, during the two intervals of this short play, furniture moves along to denote the Ouspensky concept of Time as a curve. I think. It is ingenious, though the paucity of seats on the far side does at times make you wonder why there are seven silent modern people lurking in the sitting room of an inn on the North York Moors in 1936.
But there we are: brisk war-widow Sally (Vicky Binns) and her lumbering landlord Dad Sam (Keith Parry) welcome Whitsun visitors. Dr Gortler a German exile (Jewish, one assumes) is an unsettling presence: a bushy-browed Edward Halsted , restrained and unemphatic, makes the most of his enigmatic, unexplained focus. Young Oliver Farrant (Daniel Souter) is a puppyish schoolmaster, under stress.
A blustery, angry, busy industrialist and ex-soldier Ormund is David Schaal, whose journey through the play is remarkably well rendered; his wispy, unhappy, beautiful young wife (Alexandra Dowling) gradually falls for Farrant. Whose job depends on him, as founder of the school. Farrant speaks for the rising generation, the new 20th century me-morality as per Private Lives and Design for Living, and defends running off with Mrs Ormund because “a man and a woman have a perfect right to do what we’re doing”. Sally remonstrates with a gritty Priestleyish Yorkshire reproof – “We haven’t just ourselves to think on!”
Oh, and the landlord and Sally have invested all their savings in Ormund’s business: so there we have interdependence and war-scars: a widow, a bereaved exile, a mis-married girl, and a young man without a generation of role-models , groping for a new morality. The 1914-18 war is everywhere, though only mentioned in detail by the cynical, hard-drinking, despairing Ormund, who says he emerged from the trenches to find “a whole world limping on one foot with a hole in its head”. His success doesn’t help either: modern “high-value individuals” might nod at his finding wealth ‘a glass wall between you and most of the fun and friendliness of the world”. The closing moments of the play flip you back to that thought, movingly.
But the plot – a slow-burn, its opening scenes very much of a period when people listened to one another’s banalities without flipping out an iPhone – is driven by Gortler’s unwelcome insights into all their lives. He is conducting an experiment in parallel possibilities, lives lived twice a la Sliding Doors, “parallels and instances of recurrence and intervention”, dreamed-futures and déja-vu. But as the fog clears Priestley’s authentic voice speaks through it, gruff as Churchill: your life is in your own hands, you are not a pawn of fate . Peace – personal peace here, but it could be the other sort – “is not something waiting for you. You have to create it”. One at least of my critical colleagues didn’t believe in the odd emotional gallantry of the last scene. But I actually did. I read a lot of 1930’s novels. And Schaal did it really remarkably well…
Box Office: 020 7287 2875 to 21 May jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
co-produced with the New Actors Company