The REP, Birmingham, Monday 3rd November, 2014
The play begins in darkness. There is a gunshot and a woman screams..
But the playwright, J B Priestley is playing a trick: the lights come up on a group of women listening to a radio play. They are soon joined by a dapper bunch of gentlemen in evening dress and a discussion of the broadcast and its theme of truth-telling triggers a series of revelations that tears the group of friends apart.
The play must have been more shocking in its day – we have become somewhat inured to infidelities and all the other transgressions to which the characters lay claim. Probably too, a 1930s audience might have felt more inclined to like these people but I struggle to find anything likeable in any of them. They really are a deplorable lot – apart from Olwen Peel (Kim Thomson) but even she has her dark surprises.
Michael Praed seems the most at home in the period setting as debonair cad and bounder Charles Stanton. His throwaway delivery of sarcastic lines gets plenty of laughs. Kim Thomson is also excellent as the lovelorn spinster, ably supported by Finty Williams as Freda and by Colin Buchanan as her husband Robert. I couldn’t take to Gordon (Matt Milne), I’m afraid, whose characterisation seems like a piece gone astray from a different jigsaw puzzle – he doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest.
Gary McCann’s costumes are gorgeous and his sturdy and grandiose art deco set conveys wealth and stability in contrast with the human frailties that are exposed with every passing minute. It is though a rather static affair, a wordy play where empathy for the characters is replaced by admiration for Priestley’s skills as he piles on disclosure after disclosure to an almost ludicrous degree, before delivering a coup de theatre by sending us all back to start – except this time we are armed with insights and every line is pregnant with dramatic irony. A twist of fate averts the trigger and the devastating discussion doesn’t happen…
Honesty is not the best policy, the play says. Lies maintain the veneer of civilisation and keep us ticking along sociably enough. Perhaps that’s the most immoral revelation of all.