The Good Companions

JB Priestley, adapted for the stage by Bob Eaton and Sayan Kent
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
(2003)

This musical adaptation of J B Priestley's 1929 novel follows the fortunes of pierrot troupe the Dinky Doos, after their leader and pianist run off together with the cash box. Using tables, benches and hampers full of props, the pierrots enact for us the individual tales of their four unlikely new members, with whose help they go on to transform themselves into The Good Companions. There's unemployed Jess Oakroyd (Graham Kent), who leaves his ailing marriage in Yorkshire now that the children are independent; wealthy Miss Trant (Helen Goldwyn), at a loose end after the death of her father; and songwriting schoolteacher Inigo Jollifant (Oliver Chopping), who meets up with musical tramp Morton Mitcham (Duncan Wisbey) on the road. Their chance encounter with the bankrupt and despairing Dinky Doos, and the team spirit that develops, alters the fates of them all.

As the newly named troupe tour England in search, if not of fame and fortune, at least of a clean theatre and a bit of an audience, Inigo falls for their young hopeful, Susie Dean, played with lively flair by Emma Jay Thomas. His songs help her to achieve her dream of stardom, and also transform the troupe's style from old-time pierrots to that of a swinging concert party.

This in-house production, directed by Peter Rowe, uses its ensemble of actor musicians to great effect. There are some impressive instrumentalists amongst them, and its their ensemble work and the lively spirit it engenders that makes for an entertaining evening. There's also some amusing stage business with clever props. The choreography is consistent with the performing abilities of an end-of-pier troupe but what it lacks in variety the cast compensate for with their energy and gusto.

The adaptation itself works well, with Priestley's prose coming through loud and clear at times, though it feels as if one or two of the characters are left high and dry after our interest has been aroused in their story. This is especially the case with Yorkshireman Jess, who doesn't have much of the action until the very end. There's also only one genuinely foot-tapping hummable tune, which doesn't make for a very meaty musical. It's in the song and dance numbers that a musical usually achieves its high points, but there are no sumptuous melodies and not even a big duet for Susie and Inigo. At times, too, the sound balance did tend to let the instruments overwhelm the voices.

The new Wolsey's deep stage is used to good effect in this production, and designer Richard Foxton's constructed proscenium with red plush curtains and boxes provides a handsome fixed frame for the troupe's travels, and a reminder of the comfortable residency they aspire to.

After the RNT's wonderful revival of An Inspector Calls, audiences might wonder at the apparent frivolity of this play. In fact, it was through the process of helping to adapt his novel for the stage that Priestley himself became a playwright. But his familiar theme of community and common purpose is here, though more lightly drawn, in what is a humorous, sentimental fairy-tale. There are no inner meanings to be teased out, and no irony; what you see is what you get. And the packed mid-week audience evidently enjoyed what they saw.

Reviewer: Jill Sharp