BWW Review: THE ROUNDABOUT, Park Theatre, 25 August 2016
We're in a country house in the early 1930s, which, at weekends, receives a variety of visitors by car and train, English stereotypes up from London: the Dowager Duchess; the aesthete artist; the dim Etonian; the wise, wisecracking bachelor; the impecunious, baffled owner; the disruptive arrival. It's not PG Wodehouse's immortal Blandings Castle, though it's not far off.
J.B. Priestley's The Roundabout is an earlier, slighter work than those that established his reputation and is revived by Hugh Ross at the Park Theatre partly because its themes of a creaking social order, financial crisis and incipient political fracturing ring ominously familiar some 85 years on from its premiere. Yes, there's even a Jeremy Corbyn lookalike to fly the Red Flag and enjoy the brandy.
The plot, which isn't quite sufficient to support over two hours' action, centres on Lord Kettlewell, whose business empire is collapsing but whose moribund social life is about to take the jump into the unknown when his long estranged daughter, Pamela, turns up out of the blue (well, straight from the USSR) and refuses to leave.
He, being bored, and she, being bright, amuse each other with a bit of verbal jousting, aided by family friend Chuffy, whose dry wit and gimlet eye miss nothing. There's a widow trying to snare the Lord against his will and a posh boy secretary too and, naturally, everyone looks wonderful in bias-cut dresses and sports jackets, parading on an Art Deco set designed by Polly Sullivan. But is it enough?
On the upside, Bessie Carter is splendid as the Jessica Mitfordish Pamela, whose communist rhetoric is somewhat compromised by her ability to carry off (indeed, to own) Schiaparelli-inspired gowns. Hugh Sachs has a lot of fun as Chuffy, the Galahad of Blandings character, dryly doling out the acerbic observations which, for all their high camp delivery, hit home. Ed Pinker does well with a cameo as an earnest artist, even if he did keep reminding me of Simon Williams in Upstairs, Downstairs, another reference point for this play.
As for the other characters - well, caricatures - I found them too broad to believe in really. Would Comrade Staggles, at 28 and educated, behave like American Pie's Stifler after too many Marxist meetings? Would the hitherto soul of discretion, house butler Parsons, get squiffy before having his sweepstake winnings confiscated by the Government? Would Lord Kettlewell's suitor, Mrs Lancicourt, be so easily outmanoeuvred by a girl whom she clocks as a threat from first sight?
Perhaps these plot problems are why the play has been forgotten for so long, but maybe now is the right time to revive it - after all, about as much makes sense in the Britain of 2016 as it did in the Britain of 1931. So why not?
Picture credit: Robert Workman