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People at Sea

J.B Priestley
Salisbury Playhouse
(2008)

Production photo

To describe People at Sea as J.B. Priestley's lost play is putting it mildly.

Written around 1937, this thriller about a group of passengers and crew stranded on a crippled steamship received only a few performances in the 'thirties. Indeed it seems doubtful whether Priestley himself saw any of them as he was then in New York.

The play reappears now after 68 years, thanks to Philip Wilson who has chosen it as his first production as Artistic Director at Salisbury Playhouse where it received a warm reception from a full house this week.

People at Sea was surely the victim of two of Priestley's other1930s triumphs, as Time and the Conways and I Have Been Here Before were both already running in London.

For connoisseurs of Priestley's popular work, I have to say that this play lacks both the sharpness of An Inspector Calls and the warmth of When We Are Married. Yet it has all Priestley's keen powers of observation of his fellow men and a good deal, too, of his well-known feelings about the gulf between those that have and have not.

Wilson's production, which reflects Priestley's avuncular affection for his own narrative, is in no hurry to get us to conclusion or the interval bar. Yet thanks as much to the strong company of twelve as to the writer's feeling for his characters, we (and I'm sure I was not alone) sit back and enjoy the shipwreck of souls being played out below.

Mike Britton's sympathetic maritime design is no small factor in our engagement with events at sea. A solid, dockside house tab shields us in the interludes from the action taking place in the stricken vessel's veranda café.

Jamie Bradley is the acting skipper, suddenly challenged as lifeboats, together with most of the passengers and crew, flee from the flames as the captain perishes overboard.

Those left soon divide into hearty stand-in cooks and lookouts while the remainder form a menacing alliance of potential thieves and murderers.

Nicolas Tennant is a surly, ill-tempered Boyne, with Emily Pithon as a deceptively scheming Miriam. Christopher Harper is the permanent traveller Velburg without state or passport and Damien Matthews is the writer looking for love and self-belief.

And there is a powerful performance from Christopher Ravenscroft as Pawlet, the academic who loses a thesis but finds a central role resolving dark intrigue.

There are also strong performances from Max Dowler (Frank) John Elkington (Ripton), Isla Carter (Nona), Jan Carey (Mrs Westmorland) and Juliet Howland (Diana).

Music is composed by Richard Hammarton.

The production continues until Saturday, 22nd March.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole