It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a J B Priestley play. I think the last one was Stephen Daldry’s Inspector Calls which Mrs C and I saw in London sometime in the 1990s, but we were stuck at the back of the Garrick Theatre in London with the actors so distant they might just as well have been in Cardiff for all that I could connect with them. We saw a production of “I Have Been Here Before” at the Wycombe Swan also in the 90s with Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served as the mysterious German Doktor. Before then it was just a production of An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Theatre in London in 1978 and a TV adaptation of Dangerous Corner around the same time.
So it was good to have some renewed exposure to this 20th century British stalwart. “Eden End” is not so often performed – perhaps because it doesn’t have the beguiling “time tricks” of Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner. And maybe it is easy to see why it could have fallen out of favour in this modern age – what could a play from 1934 set in 1912, that doesn’t really have a very strong storyline, have that is relevant to today?
Well you just have to see it to answer that question. Laurie Sansom’s production of Eden End takes a simple tale and makes it riveting. As usual he has brought together a cast that works wonders as an ensemble. You get the feeling that in every performance the actors get a new truth out of the material, so fresh is their connection with the audience. On one level the play is about the return of an actress daughter to the family home after eight years’ absence, and the emotional ripples it creates through those left behind. On another, it reveals the reality of “the other man’s grass is always greener”; how people cope with the knowledge that life could be better somewhere else. And are they right? Very Chekhovian, Laurie Sansom refers to its similarities with “The Cherry Orchard” in the programme; there’s also a lot of “Three Sisters” in there too, as everyone has their own private Moscow.
Fantasy and reality are blurred with the brilliant set – ostensibly a traditional drawing room, but with a stylised stage curtain as the back wall and stage footlights around the edge. The fantasy suggests a glittering stage career elsewhere, but does the reality agree with that? If you saw the recent production of “Love Love Love” by Mike Bartlett, it features a daughter character who is bitter at her failed music career because no one told her when she was young that she simply wasn’t good enough. The returning actress Stella also implies that the fantasy of a brilliant acting career was a much more comforting place than the reality of being barely adequate at it.
Stella is played by Charlotte Emmerson, fab when last seen here at the Royal as the Duchess of Malfi. It’s a beautiful performance – combining the apparent starry glamour of her profession with vulnerability in the uncertainty of whom she loves, and the worry of whether she can sustain a career. At one stage, for a little while fantasy reigns as she meets up again with long lost love Farrant; then reality returns in the form of her ex-husband. Charlotte Emmerson wonderfully portrays this movement into the light and then back into darkness.
Farrant, played by Jonathan Firth, is also a winning creation. What could easily be just another stock Edwardian stiff-upper-lip chappy with a gammy leg, becomes a real person who overcomes the reservations of the era to tell Stella how he feels. Overflowing with decency, his sense of correctness and his openness are very genuinely acted and I enjoyed his performance very much. There’s an excellent moment when he encounters Charles Appleby. His reactions are simple, but perfectly executed.
Stella’s sister, Lilian, played by Daisy Douglas, comes across as deeply repressed and embittered, left behind to look after Father, sacrificing her own happiness for the perceived selfishness of her sister. There’s a great scene between the two of them where they challenge each other’s motives for how life turned out. Gripping stuff. You felt some sympathy for her – but also appreciated that she’s a bit cunning. Daisy Douglas puts over the shades of grey with the character very effectively.
Her brother Wilfred – looking like how you would imagine a 24 year old Gordon Brown to look but don’t let that put you off – is played by Nick Hendrix. Dashing and ineffectual, still patronised by the family retainer Sarah, sniffing (largely metaphorically) at the skirt of a barmaid, wasting his days at home in idleness, it’s a great study of youthful underachievement. It was very rewarding to see that even in 1934 young people couldn’t get the jokes in those old Punch cartoons! His build-up routines to ringing the girlfriend were very nicely done too. According to the programme, Nick Hendrix is fresh out of RADA and this is his first professional engagement. Well we thought he was absolutely first class, and are sure he’s going to have a great career.
Daniel Betts plays Charles Appleby, Stella’s estranged husband, a bit of a jack-the-lad actor, dressed like you would imagine Max Miller would if he had an office job. Cheeky and charismatic, you could see why Stella might have fallen for him – and after his night out with Wilfred, you could also see why she would have gone right off him. I have to commend Daniel Betts on his brilliant drunk act. Completely credible, nothing farcical or over the top about it; really well observed and very very funny. Mrs C and I were not entirely sure about Charles and Wilfred’s music-hall song and dance act between Acts Two and Three; they did it very well and I can see how it continues the theme of blur between fantasy and reality; but on the whole, we didn’t “get it”. I note that it’s not in the original text.
William Chubb’s Dr Kirby was very convincing as the elderly GP father with a care for his community and a gentle cynicism about life as a whole. Sarah was played by Carol Macready and was a subtle reading of the role of the old retainer, both cantankerous and kindly; occasionally wanting to keep hold of her old niche as authoritative nurse with the children, but knowing her power is gone. When, at the end, she is left behind in a very Chekhovian moment, and she realises Stella has gone without the parcel – I confess it brought a tear to my eye.
This is also a production really suitable for congratulating the usually unsung heroes. I’ve already mentioned the imaginative set of Sara Perks, suggesting a balance between reality and fantasy, stability and instability (the traditional room but set on a jaunty angle) and openness and secrecy (the back room that lights up to reveal Lilian desperately alone). I also thought the music by Jon Nicholls accompanied the mood perfectly, never monopolising a scene, gently suggesting more than it explained – lovely quiet sounds of an orchestra tuning up, for instance; so much more subtle than other sound effects we’ve been subjected to recently.
The sad feeling I had at the end of the play reflected how, throughout the whole play, the emotions were strong but beautifully understated. This gave the whole production a surprising additional energy. It’s a quiet gem, and I’m glad it’s going to be touring after its Northampton run. I recommend it highly.