J B Priestley
Salisbury Playhouse quite likes Priestley. Well, they wouldn’t show Inspector Calls, obviously. I mean, who’d dare to resurrect the inspector in a new version after the iconic Daldry production? Not for a year or two at least, surely. But they give Priestley an airing every so often and chose this year to blow the dust off Dangerous Corner, the first of his ‘time’ plays.
The situation is an after-dinner gathering in the drawing room of a prosperous thirties household. Robert Caplan and his wife Freda (Edmund Kingsley and Kirsty Besterman) are entertaining friends and colleagues, together with the Caplans’ neighbour Maud (Stephanie Jacob), a novelist.
There is gentle banter among old friends and general implicit reassurance that both their relationships and their family publishing business, from which their comfortable life derives, have a firm foundation.
But then Maud leaves and someone mentions the absent member of the party around whom the subsequent action evolves. This is Martin, Robert’s brother, whose death by suicide the previous year, at the same time as the mysterious disappearance of £500 (a serious amount in 1932), has cast a dark cloud over them all.
The cloud intensifies as a trivial incident in which Olwen (Ruth Everett), a friend and employee of the firm, recognises the musical box from which Freda has offered her a cigarette (cigarettes being an obligatory prop for any play or film of the time, of course).
What follows is an intricately woven series of revelations, involving each of the rest of the party whose secret affairs, deceit and even, in one case, latent homosexuality (a bit daring for the period) are exposed and which ends dramatically, with Olwen making her shocking pronouncement on which the curtain falls at the interval, leaving the audience breathless. How, after all that’s been said, can disintegration of every aspect of the group’s lives possibly be avoided?
There were clever indications of the sinister nature of the play, of course, before it even started. That great bang at the beginning, for instance—a gunshot, yes, but from the radio—and the fact that the play begins in darkness and only gradually reaches the full degree of brightness necessary to bring us into the superficial party atmosphere.
Then there’s the programme, funereal black, with the playwright’s name in blood red. This is not going to be Ayckbourn.
Popular at the time of its initial production, but perhaps a little dated now? When did you last hear someone say, ‘Now look here’ and what about the epithet ‘you rotten swine’? How can it possibly avoid evoking the Goons? Heroic the actor who can keep a straight face.
When Maud returns in the last act and the dialogue which began the play starts again, we know these characters. And we’re feeling just a bit smug, smugness being up until now a preserve of the characters themselves. Because we know what’s going to happen to them. Or do we? Is what we’ve seen just part of Maud the novelist’s imagination? Or does it foreshadow future revelations?
Then someone gets up to turn on the radio. No gunshot this time. Just dance music, a foxtrot.
And so the play ends with a companionable dance. The characters can resume their carefree lives, the audience slightly less easily.
A stylish and enjoyable production, then. But worth bringing back to life after all this time?
In this case, surely yes.
Reviewer: Anne Hill