Set in 1912, JB Priestley’s 1934 drama concerns the unexpected return to the family fold of one Stella Kirby, a woman who, eight years previously, left home to become an actress, against her parents’ wishes. Stella’s career has not progressed as she hoped, but she conceals this from her father, a GP who has come to view her leaving as a courageous act, the kind that he wishes he himself had made earlier in his life. Completing the family gathering are Stella’s younger siblings Lilian and Wilfred, the former bitter and resentful of her sister, the latter on leave from his job in Nigeria. The appearance of Stella’s old beau Geoffrey and her semi-estranged husband Charles (who she’s neglected to mention to her family) further complicate the reunions, as Priestley constructs a portrait of a group of characters who are all, in one way or another, dealing with disappointment in their lives.
Priestley’s debt to Chekhov in Eden End has been widely noted, and is evident at the level of structure, theme and characterisation. The protagonists’ sense of disillusionment, the hope expressed that things will be better for future generations, the shifts between moments of humour and wistfulness - all of this resonates with the Russian playwright’s work. But Priestley’s exploration of “the way circumstances and time can change and hurt us” has its own resonance. And Laurie Sansom’s expert new production for English Touring Theatre overcomes the play’s derivativeness by emphasising its English social context and by giving it a subtly expressionistic staging. Perhaps tipping its hat to Stephen Daldry’s seminal production of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, Sara Perks’s design presents the Kirby family’s sitting room on a stage on the stage, complete with footlights. Initially the conceit seems jarring but it proves more effective as the evening progresses and the play’s concern with the role of performance and illusion in everyday life becomes apparent. Apart from an indulgent bit of pre-Act 3 music hall business that feels entirely surplus to requirements, Sansom’s staging is fluid and full of feeling, alert to the play’s shifts in mood.
And the actors deliver strong, empathetic and involving performances across the board. As the prodigal daughter, Charlotte Emmerson takes a little while to settle into the role: she overdoes Stella’s excitement to be home in her first scene, speaking her lines so quickly that they don’t appear to have the weight of thought. But the performance deepens, and Emmerson is extremely touching as she reveals Stella’s regrets about the direction of her life and the ways in which her belief in her talent has been shaken. Emmerson has particularly effective and well-written scenes with William Chubb, who is superb as her father, and with Daisy Douglas, who makes us understand and sympathise with Lilian’s resentment of her sister. Making his professional stage debut, Nick Hendrix is terrifically likeable as Wilfred, a young man who’s come to feel at home neither in England nor in Africa, and with Daniel Betts’s genial Charles, he shares the most enjoyable drunk scene seen on stage since the Old Vic’s production of Design for Living. And as the maid Sarah, Carol Macready gives a lovely performance, creating a figure of both exasperating querulousness and encompassing warmth. Beautifully pitched between naturalism and expressionism, this is a very fine revival of a poignant and perceptive play.
Further information on tour dates and venues here.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.