Writer: J.B. Priestley
Director: Hugh Ross
Reviewer: Daniel Perks
Britain in the 1930s is still very much a class society, with small indications of the turmoil and turbulence about to unfold. Businesses are feeling the after-effects of the Wall Street Crash; controversial parties are starting to extend their tendrils of influence into the more malleable younger, revolutionary generations. Indeed J.B Priestley’s play The Roundabout is certainly peppered with its author’s political viewpoints – while not a communist, Priestley was very much an outspoken left-wing individual, which could at times leave him in hot water with the 1930s UK Government. It’s no surprise that his works are a subverted expression of his opinions and The Roundabout, a three-act comedy that upsets Lord Kettlewell’s (Brian Protheroe) apple cart when his estranged, newly-turned Communist daughter Pamela (Bessie Carter) returns from the USSR to stay.
The format, plot and tone of this play is very much of its time and, unfortunately, is one that doesn’t age well. Falling on hard times, Lord Kettlewell (Protheroe) is put upon by Pamela (Carter) and her comrade,Staggles (Steven Blakeley), for a rather awkward weekend lunch, along with employee Farrington Gurney (Charlie Field) and ‘close, personal friend’ Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks). Worlds, ideals and personalities collide, all masterminded by Pamela and centred towards her father, culminating with the arrival of equally estranged mother Lady Kettlewell (Lisa Bowerman).
Priestley always had a knack for a tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase, his comedy stems mainly from the somewhat wry observation of events made by the supporting characters as his main protagonists are haplessly caught up in affairs. In this production, the punch lines are mainly gifted to Churton Saunders (Hugh Sachs), an old friend full of mimsy, a relic of times long since gone, and Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey), an upper-class widow turned thrifty cutthroat after falling on hard times. Both actors have comedy in their bones, from a well-timed delivery to an expression or mannerism, they lighten the tone of the play and keep it merrily rolling along.
As the central antagonist, Pamela (Carter) has the most opportunity to impress on the stage and takes full advantage. Appearing at first with deliberate androgyny, she is quick to resort to using her femininity to her advantage. A character of contrast, she adds a much-needed dimension to the drama, flitting between political ideals and personality traits with the same effortlessness that is found in her delivery. It’s just a shame that Priestley ultimately writes her to be causing such trouble because of her being spurned by a man, a plot twist that is unimaginatively and hurriedly resolved in the last few lines of the last act.
The main issue with this play is that it is simply pleasant, twee, and harmless. In other words, vanilla – dated and ultimately not particularly memorable. Minor characters come and go, effectively stereotyped by their respective actors, but without ultimately providing impact. Hugh Ross makes traditional, expected choices for a play that bubbles with the undercurrent of revolution. Staying true to the script, the period and the visualisation is not a negative in any sense of the word, but in order to stand out, it must be particularly slick or well delivered. In The Roundabout, actors stumble over lines and unintentionally jump into each other’s dialogue, so while the production rolls along inoffensively, it doesn’t build any pace, impetus or drive. For a title that conjures up images of childlike glee, adrenaline and enjoyment, The Roundabout doesn’t spin as quickly as one would like.
Runs until 24 September 2016 | Image: Robert Workman