Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eden End at Richmond Theatre

It may be less structurally playful than some of his other plays but J.B Priestley’s Eden End is still very much concerned with time, its passing and the things it wrings from people over the years.

When prodigal daughter Stella Kirby returns to the family home after an absence of eight years, she finds that may things have altered since she left: her mother has passed away, her father’s health is failing, her sister has hardened with the strain while her younger brother, still a boy when she set out, has simply grown up. Stella left the nest to pursue a career on the stage but the world of the Edwardian theatre has not been kind to her; despite travelling widely, she has never achieved fame, just drifted from one draughty dressing room to the next.

Perhaps because it is more straightforwardly constructed than some of his other work, Eden End has been comparatively neglected. Written in 1934, in the turbulent period between the wars, the play is set in 1912 and duly loaded with ironic foreshadowing. There are recurring conversations about their hopes for the future; more than once characters pass comment on how four years down the line  life will surely be looking up for everyone.

Stella does not anticipate how disruptive her return will be for her family, particularly for her sister, Lilian who feels angry that she has been obliged to stay behind and take care of things while Stella has been out in the world. This idea, of roads not taken, runs through the play; the girls’ softly spoken father, a rural GP, speaks of his regret at not having taken his chances in London when a younger man and Lillian’s conception of herself is shaped by the things she hasn’t done, even if there’s a sense that she has come to cling to the role of the devoted, stay-at-home daughter, that she alone has held herself back. In places the tone, it has been pointed out, is decidedly Chekhovian: this family in their rain-lashed out-of-the-way abode dreaming of what might have been.

Lilian’s bitterness becomes increasingly venomous when the dashing local farmer - for whom she has held a candle for years - finds his dormant feelings for Stella reignited by her return. Lilian retaliates by looking up Stella’s estranged husband Charles and inviting him to stay. Priestley’s characterisation of this caddish interloper, however, is surprisingly affectionate; in fact the playwright’s sympathies seem very much skewed towards the two actors and their itinerant tempest-tossed existence, with the result that Lilian comes off as chilly and malicious in comparison.

Charlotte Emmerson’s delicate yet worldly performance as Stella is the highlight of Laurie Sansom’s slow-burner of a production though Nick Hendrix makes an endearing stage debut as baby brother, Wilfred; home on leave from his job in Nigeria, he seems to have regressed to adolescence, pouting sulkily at the maid and dashing around the stage with boyish energy before getting spectacularly squiffy with Charles in a somewhat over-extended scene of drunkenness.

While Sansom successfully conjures an air of poignancy and wistfulness, a world and a way of life about to be obliterated, he seems to wish the play were a little more formally experimental than it actually is. Some of the directorial choices are jarring: a music hall interlude feels like too aggressive an insert, puncturing the atmosphere of the piece, and the decision to place the set on a raised stage upon the stage itself seems only to constrict the performers’ negotiation of the space. Other aspects of Sara Perks’s design are more successful and her backdrop of light bulbs and glistening strings is appropriately reminiscent of both a theatre curtain and the trickle of raindrops on a window pane.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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