The Roundabout remains a curiosity that gains three stars for its production values above all, but makes no pressing case for our future attention. Not every well-made play is a lost masterpiece, and there are several better plays by Priestley that deserve another hearing ahead of this one.

RoundaboutWe all know J.B.Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a play that has rarely been off stage or screen for long since its 1945 premiere (in the Soviet Union!). The forties were Priestley’s best and most influential decade as an imaginative writer, social pundit and left-wing thinker. He rivalled Churchill as a radio broadcaster, and seemed entirely in tune with the times as the new Labour government set about its comprehensive reforms.

He also had many interesting philosophical themes to develop especially on our perception and experience of time, a perspective that provides what is actually the most disconcerting aspect of An Inspector Calls. There are plenty of his other plays that deserve more frequent outings – notably Time and the Conways and The Linden Tree. However, The Roundabout is sadly not one of them.

Things look promising at the start. With dance music on the soundtrack the lights go up on a medieval-deco interior of a 30s country house – slightly reminiscent of Eltham Palace. Polly Sullivan’s elegant set offers a vaulted living room backed with a brick wall left only partially rendered. Stylish deco furniture populates a tiled floor with a lot of seating that indicates a largish cast. Two exits conventionally placed either side indicate we are in a drama rather than a farce, and a drinks cabinet centre-stage suggests a country-house weekend.

This play, effectively the author’s first effort, was written and set in 1931. There is none of his later playfulness with time sequences, but it does still aspire to be more than a drawing room comedy through its persistent concern to offer social and class commentary.

The problem resides in the fact that it is only intermittently comic, with long stretches of dialogue that remain flat on the page, and the satire remains unfocused for the most part. There is a debt to Wilde, Maugham and early Coward here without any sense of their controlling purposes. In 1931 Priestley may already have found his feet as a novelist, but he was still very much a novice when it came to writing plays.

RoundaboutLord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe) is taking a weekend away to contemplate the future of the various companies in which he has a controlling interest. However, his privacy is continually interrupted by a series of unannounced and unwelcome visitors, culminating in his estranged wife (Lisa Bowerman).

Most disconcerting of all is his daughter, Pamela (Bessie Carter), whom he hardly remembers. She has recently returned from Russia as a firebrand Communist and brings along her colleague, Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley) who is determined on confrontation, though easily distracted as it turns out by brandy and the prospect of romantic dalliance.

Added to the social mix in order to provoke more chaos are Hilda Lancicourt, Lord Kettlewell’s mistress, a haughty lady of leisure (Carol Starks), and a grasping, gossipy old dragon of a decayed aristocrat, Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey) who has connections in Fleet Street. Below stairs is represented by the obsequious butler, Parsons, (Derek Hutchinson) who has an eye for the horses, and a put-upon maid Alice (Annie Jackson).

Minor roles, very lightly sketched by the writer, are filled by Ed Pinker as Alec Grenside, a society painter, and Charlie Field as Farrington Gurney, Lord Kettlewell’s chinless wonder of a secretary.

The most interesting part of all is taken by Hugh Sachs, who plays Churton Saunders, a droll social commentator and genial parasite, who is staying as a guest for the weekend, and is known to almost everyone. He seems to represent Priestley himself, amused and mildly dismayed by the goings-on.

RoundaboutThe standard of acting and creative support is high. Given the thin nature of some of the plotting and dialogue the actors work hard to compensate with plenty of elaborate farcical business and synthetic emotion. Sound, lighting and costumes are tastefully combined to give a strong sense of period detail and plenty of visual interest across the elaborate set. Some sections lacked pace, but doubtless Hugh Ross’ production will pick up momentum as the run proceeds.

The Roundabout remains a curiosity that gains three stars for its production values above all, but makes no pressing case for our future attention. Not every well-made play is a lost masterpiece, and there are several better plays by Priestley that deserve another hearing ahead of this one.

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The Roundabout
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…