Discovering a forgotten play can be a double-edged sword. Had it been accidentally lost or deliberately buried?
After 80 years the provenance surrounding JB Priestley’s political satire, The Roundabout, is shaky but I’m delighted that it’s now resurfaced in a sparkling and witty production at London’s Park Theatre.
Director Hugh Ross found the manuscript among his father’s old things – as one does – and the Park’s artistic director Jez Bond jumped at the chance to stage a revival.
Priestley is best known among theatre goers for Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls. He was famously renowned for playing around with time and coming up with fiendishly clever thrillers.
So this lightweight bit of fluff, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, is a real departure – or perhaps it is the other way around.
This is a deliciously entertaining comedy that had me chuckling from the off. It features two rising young stars who are making their professional theatre debuts and a cast of old hands who deliver its wry, Wildean, one-liners, with polished finesse.
The Roundabout is a real gem, knocked off in 1932 at the very start of Priestley’s career, and quite unlike anything he later went on to produce.
Programme notes tell us that he started it as a vehicle for Peggy Ashcroft but failed to meet deadlines. Eventually completed, it later appeared in the amateur dramatic repertoire but has never, until now, appeared on a professional London stage.
That’s a real tragedy. As a fan of Oscar Wilde I couldn’t help but notice how Priestley had borrowed the author’s penchant for aphorisms. Hugh Sachs, lucky man, is given a peach of a character in society hanger-on, Churton Saunders, or Chuffy, to his pals who delivers one pithy observation after another.
With deadpan delivery Chuffy, a self-confessed “degenerate scoundrel,” celebrates his foibles and brings the house down with astute observations and razor-sharp witty retorts.
The Roundabout is a country house comedy that pokes fun at politics and class while muddying the waters over who is truly bourgeois. Here the gentry has never been so working class while its Communist brethren appear the idle rich.
Financier Lord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe) is facing ruin after a series of poor investments. But, as he bemoans his lot to Chuffy, the old family pile begins to fill up with a collection of unwanted lunch guests.
First on the menu is his estranged daughter, followed by an uninvited lover and, finally, the local busybody dowager and burgeoning entrepreneur, Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey).
The last time Kettlewell saw his daughter, Pamela, was when she was a small child, walking out of his life on the hand of his departing wife. Now, years later, a creature of unknown sex appears on his doorstep, dressed in Frank Spencer’s cast-offs and a convert to Communism.
Bessie Carter is straight out of drama school but you’d never know it. Her parents are Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter and it is evident that her immaculate breeding has created the new generation of theatrical talent.
Confident and self-assured she delivers an polished performance as a manipulative minx hellbent on creating havoc in her father’s life.
Pamela is forthright, outspoken, filled with devilment, perverse, petulant and radical – and they’re her good points.
But for all her politics, nurtured at Oxford and matured in Russia, she’s an angry young lady intent on meddling in the life of the man she thinks abandoned her.
With her is hard-liner Comrade Herbert Staggles (former Heartbeat cop, comic actor Steven Blakeley) who denounces the upper classes while enjoying a fine dining and vintage cognac from the fammily cellar.
Blakeley’s timing is perfect while his strong Derbyshire accent and lean, bespectacled physical appearance undoubted valuable assets for a character actor.
There are times when it just takes a raised eyebrow or a line or two of ludicrous political dogma, to get laughs. For the lusty, oversexed, Staggles is straight out of the upper classes, if only he knew it.
Protheroe’s upper class lord is asset rich and cash poor, his old Etonian private secretary, the splendidly named Farrington Gurney (newcomer Charlie Field) works like a dog, Lady Knightsbridge is constantly looking for the next big deal and even the estranged Lady Kettlewell has made her own fortune by the sweat of her perfumed brow.
The only two not doing much for the distribution of wealth are freeloaders Pamela and Staggles.
“Communism is all right for a young man,” says the sagacious Socialist butler, Parsons (Derek Hutchinson), “but you’ll get over it.”
Take a spin with The Roundabout. Running at Park Theatre until September 24.
Wildean one-liners and eccentric characterisation, JB Priestley’s country house comedy, The Roundabout, is a lost gem that deserves acclaim.