J. B. Priestley
Directed by Sam Yates
Pros: The great cast and tight stage direction gives unexpected energy to this very English drama. The air conditioning and the well stocked wine bar downstairs are a bonus!
Cons: There could be a little more depth to the feelings of sadness and despair in Act III.
Our Verdict: Very enjoyable – a high quality, vibrant production of this almost forgotten play.
I have to admit I was a little reticent about watching JB Priestley’s Cornelius
. Written and set in the 1930s, I was anticipating high teas, stiff upper lip, grey skies and dialogue to match. I had trouble finding any reference to it online and there must be a good reason why it hasn’t been staged in London for over 70 years, right? Well the only reason I can think of after seeing this production at the Finborough
, is that it has simply been overlooked.
The play is situated in the office of financially struggling metal merchants, Briggs and Murrison, a setting perfect for utilising the compact stage at the Finborough. The story is quite simply a week in the office: the meetings, musings and politics of colleagues and associates working at a stressful time in the company’s history. It’s themes are still relevant in 2012, and there is not much more I can say about the plot without giving too much away so I won’t waste words on it here. It is the performances of the cast that made this a really enjoyable evening for me.
The play was written for the actor Ralph Richardson, so it is no surprise that the drama centres around Cornelius (Alan Cox) a man who has “always had at the back of [his] mind, a little open door, with plantations and jungles and pampas and quartz mountains just outside it”. He finds his day-to-day life disintegrating around him and begins to wonder whether “that little door’s not been open, has been locked from the outside, screwed fast”. Cox’s performance is really very good – he is undoubtedly the English gentleman, at times full of rhetoric, at others bumbling along. Cox manages to convey humour, generosity, sincerity and empathy at the same time as great uncertainty. I didn’t really feel the desperation and sadness that I expected from him in Act III, which reduced the impact of the final scene, however this is really a minor point. As the lynchpin in the axel of this play, Cox does an excellent job of keeping it rolling smoothly along.
Cox was not alone though. There is a strong, dynamic contrast between all the characters, brought to life by the excellent performances of the cast. I feel there is a real energy throughout the play. Biddle (Col Farrall) an aged, staid, methodical man who finds human-like ‘character’ in numbers, directly juxtaposes the young Lawrence (David Ellis), frustrated by his stagnation, yearning to be a part of the technological future. There is the wonderful Miss Porrin (Annabel Topham) tied up in prudish aloofness and clinging to tradition, whose inner feelings are exposed when the pretty, flirtatious new typist, Judy (Emily Barber) is hired. The supporting roles are genuinely well acted, and provide an insight into the backdrop against which the story is set, bringing the issues and pressures of the outside world into the office. The cast deliver highly credible, consistent performances which for me brings the play vibrantly to life. And although there were fifteen characters played by twelve actors, the tight stage direction ensures that the diminutive Finborough stage never appears crowded or clumsy.
I really enjoyed Cornelius at the Finborough. It delivers everything I like in a play – great casting, strong consistent performances, tight stage direction and an engaging, relatable story, all set in an intimate and comfortable venue, with the added benefit of air conditioning and a well stocked wine bar downstairs! This production would be at home on a much larger stage in front of a much larger audience, and I would highly recommend seeing it. The Finborough is a gem of a theatre and I can’t wait to go back again.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!
Cornelius runs at the Finborough Theatre until 8th September 2012.