The Linden Tree
J B Priestley
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
These days, thanks to Stephen Daldry (and possibly Alistair Sim) J.B. Priestley is known for An Inspector Calls and possibly little more.
In 1947, when this play was written, he had a tremendous reputation as a playwright, novelist and free-thinking broadcaster with left-wing tendencies. The talents that make a man succeed in all of these fields are apparent in The Linden Tree but so are some of the limitations.
The play takes place on what should be an auspicious occasion. The family has travelled to Burmondleigh to help Professor Linden, "the gnarled old trunk of the Linden tree", to celebrate his 65th birthday. Oliver Ford Davies is excellent as a visionary history lecturer, who shares an enthusiasm for his subject with Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys.
Like Hector, neither his Vice Chancellor nor some family members can share his pleasure at educating the ignorant. A real family rumpus builds with each member having a part to play as a representative of type.
Mother, Anna Carteret, is tired of Burmondleigh and possibly of life and hankers after a little pampering. Son Rex (Roger Barclay) is a rich wide boy, while snooty Marion (Hannah Yelland) has married into the French aristocracy and become a Catholic. They are the critics.
Lined up on the other side with their father are Communist doctor Jean (Elizabeth Marmur), trying to handle a broken love affair with a colleague; and the bouncy Dinah. Priestley and director Christopher Morahan have scored a real hit with the innocent 18 year old. Jennifer Higham triumphs as the "unblushingly, blazingly, happy" daughter who is almost like a puppy in her unjudgemental joy at being alive.
Around the edges Priestley has sprinkled some more common people, including a couple of contrasting but dull students and Mrs Cotton. The latter is a comic maid, familiar from English comedy films of the period. At her best, Deddie Davies gets lots of laughs, her greatest moment when Mrs C has an uneven battle with the telephone.
The ending is perhaps inevitable, as the family ranks divide and go to war but, primarily thanks to the efforts of Oliver Ford Davies and Jennifer Higham, there is real poignancy as the Professor has to face up to the new kind of life that the aftermath of war has created.
The Linden Tree is a good attempt to anatomise the changing world immediately after the Second World War. Priestley uses this structure as a vehicle to allow his characters to debate crucial issues, especially religion versus science. At times though, the authorial voice can leave the plot far behind.
For the most part though, this revival of a lesser-known play is greatly to be welcomed as a reminder of this writer's humanity and wit, together with, as irrepressible Dinah expresses it, his tremendous ability to create "a plotty atmosphere".
Reviewer: Philip Fisher