Park Theatre 24 August – 24 September. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
This is the first major revival of JB Priestley’s comedy in 80 years, and that is a crying shame. Yes, it’s not quite An Inspector Calls, but this production is a joy to watch.
Set in the 1930s in the garden room of Lord Kettlewell’s (Brian Protheroe) country house, on the day that he finds out his business’s and investments are all about to crash. Happily separated from his wife (Lisa Bowerman) for years, he is trying to extricate himself from a relationship with the persistent Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks). The unannounced arrivals of his long-lost daughter Pamela (Bessie Carter), newly returned from Russia, her comrade, Staggles (Steven Blakeley), and then Lady Kettlewell all add to his problems.
Priestley encapsulates the shifting social order and the discomfort felt by the erosion of the class system with a light touch. Priestley’s leftward leanings are clear, but he mocks both communism and the British class system equally. The shift in status when Parsons the butler (Derek Hutchinson) wins the Guernsey sweep is a lovely moment, highlighting the difference between perceived and actual wealth.
Comrade Staggles’ po-faced pronouncements about how life should be are delivered brilliantly by Blakeley, and his frustration at the maid’s horrified reaction to his advances, with him being “a gentleman staying in the house” is played well. Bessie Carter makes a huge impact as Pamela – completely changing her body language according to her costume, and managing to make this slightly abrasive character sympathetic.
The show is stolen by Hugh Sachs and Richenda Carey. They are both gifted comic actors, and have the best lines in the play. As Chuffy, the self-proclaimed Edwardian parasite, Sachs observes proceedings and comments gleefully on the foolishness he sees. Sachs’ delivery, pauses and glances are just perfect for this play. Carey’s character is hysterical. Lady Knightsbridge is a mercenary matriarch scooping up gossip in between trying to find meaningful occupations for her useless relations – “Didn’t I ask you to get Claude into rubber?” Carey’s imperious glances and politely catty putdowns are hysterical. If only Priestley had given them more lines!
The pace slows after the interval as loose ends and motivations are explored, but this feels right, as the act is set directly after dinner, when full stomachs and woozy heads abound. Hugh Ross obviously LOVES Priestley, and his production has a fresh, but nostalgic feel. Polly Sullivan’s design is simple but evocative, and allows the audience to focus on the performances – which are all first rate.
This may not be a hard hitting play, but its perceptive wit and sublime word play makes The Roundabout well worth seeing. Yes, it feels like a lovely ITV3 show that you watch cuddled up on the sofa on a rainy afternoon, but sometimes that’s just what you need. I loved it.