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John Priestly, not Jason

March 22nd, 2015

Laburnum Grove
By J.B. Priestly
Western Gold Theatre
Pal Theatre
March 20-22

J.B. Priestly is a name that sounds old-fashioned, dated, but Priestly was far from being a fuddy-duddy. His ban-the-bomb articles in the Fifties in the New Statesman led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain. Priestly was the vice-president; Bertrand Russell was the president.

Admired by the likes of Judi Dench and Margaret Drabble, the Yorkshire-raised novelist and dramatist John Priestly (Boyton was added later) has been dubbed The Last Great Man of English Letters since his death in 1984. But in an age of Jason Priestly, not J.B., few today are going to want to rush off and see a staged reading of one of his lesser-known works, Laburnum Grove (1933).

More’s the pity.

Disillusioned and estranged by serving in World War One, Priestly was deeply sympathetic to the privations suffered by the poor and middle class in Britain during the Depression. Laburnum Grove is a well-constructed comedy of manners that doubles as a slyly seditious refusal to accept the status quo.

In a suburb of north London called Laburnum Grove, we meet breadwinner George Redfern, regarded by one-and-all as a dull, old stick. When the crash occurred in 1929, George’s printing business almost went under; four years later he appears to be holding steady.

Theatre Western Gold 2 posterHis wife’s sister and her husband are live-in guests dependent on George to keep a roof over their heads—basically moochers. George’s daughter has a suitor who is not worthy of her. While George’s wife is out, one evening George shocks his daughter Elsie, the selfish suitor and the mooching couple with a revelation: for about three years he has been supporting them all by being a crook.

They are flabbergasted that dull George could be a counterfeiter. Is this a joke? No, George is adamant. They are all living off the avails of phoney money. The boyfriend skedaddles, fearful of the law.

The following day it appears that George’s confession could have been a ruse to get rid of the boyfriend and the obsequious moochers. He has been reading a novel about counterfeiting so that might explain where plodding George come up with his story.

Following the interval, Priestly introduces a Scotland Yard detective who tries to inveigle George’s wife Dorothy to spill the beans—before Dorothy is in the loop about the counterfeiting claim. It’s a charming cat ‘n’ mouse scene. Even though the detective is likeable, we’re thoroughly in Dorothy’s camp.

The audience shares the flip-flopping confusions that ensue for the players on stage. Entirely set in the living room, there is a claustrophobic English silliness not far removed from Fawlty Towers. The broadly drawn characters ooze humanity. It’s fluff. And yet Priestly is clearly insinuating that a moral man must consider criminality in order to keep his household afloat—a potent message in 1933.

Even though the production with nine characters had only 25 hours of rehearsal, under Anna Hagan’s direction the ensemble mostly shines. Somehow she has succeeded in imbuing a comfort level that allows the script and the storytelling to carry the day.

Having recently provided a sublime dramatic performance in The Pitmen Painters, Keith Martin Gordey shows he’s equally adept at comedy as George; Susan Hogan is attractively poised as his loyal wife Dorothy, particularly engaging in her scene with the clever detective played by Ron Halder.

The allure of this presentation is no fluke. About three years ago Anna Hagan similarly directed a large cast for a staged reading of Priestly’s slightly better-known When We Are Married (1938). Even though the actors were also holding their scripts, the results were similarly riveting, delightful and fulfilling.

by Paul Durras

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