Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

I Have Been Here Before

J B Priestley
Jermyn Street Theatre

Edward Halsted Credit: Scott Rylander
Alexandra Dowling and Daniel Souter Credit: Scott Rylander
David Schaal and Keith Parry Credit: Scott Rylander

J B Priestley has come back into vogue thanks to Stephen Daldry and his perennial production of An Inspector Calls.

That play uses many of the techniques that he honed in The Time Plays, dramas that have a traditional feel until he adds an exotic touch of the mysterious or metaphysical.

In keeping with the subject matter, Anthony Biggs has asked designers Cherry Truluck and Alberta Jones to create a curving, sloping set with the props moving to add an extra degree of symbolic uncertainty.

I Have Been Here Before is the third of the trilogy following Dangerous Corner and Time and the Conways and in its early scenes has the feel of a far from sensational tale of folk on a country holiday on the Yorkshire moors just before the Second World War.

The Black Bull Inn is a pub/guest house like many another, run by Keith Parry’s Sam Shipley and Vicky Binns playing his widowed daughter Sally Pratt, a somewhat unlikely busybody. They work hard but enjoy the company of guests whom they hope will be civilised.

For Whitsun, they have a full house so turn away a strange German forced to escape the Nazis. Dr Görtler is an eccentric who, like the eponymous Inspector, seems to be either clairvoyant or a little mad, given depth and humanity thanks to a fine performance by Edward Halsted.

However, his predictions prove uncannily accurate with a collective cancellation and the arrival of a rich husband and his pretty young wife, Mr and Mrs Ormund (David Schaal and Alexandra Dowling), joining Oliver Farrant (Daniel Souter), a headmaster seemingly recovering from nervous exhaustion by walking vast distances across the moors.

As the German doctor demonstrates, there is a series of connections between the other parties. For example, the maudlin, toping Walter Ormund has business interests that fund Farrant’s school, attended by young Charlie Pratt. In the ether, there are also odd recollections of further links.

The first two acts see this group interacting and generally sharing collective unhappiness with perhaps rather less emotion and urgency than modern audiences desire.

It is only in the final minutes of the 2¼-hour performance that Priestley, through the doctor, expounds the theories of the long forgotten Russian mathematician P D Ouspensky.

These involve the belief that time is not a straight line heading inexorably forwards but a curve that repeats infinitely. This is fascinating stuff and spices up what might otherwise be a relatively run-of-the-mill story.

Where Priestley scores is in turning something that could sound highfalutin and tedious to watch into haunting theatre that makes audience members think deeply about life, death and everything in between.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher