North London members Tim Dixon and Martha Constable enjoyed a Priestley evening with friends at this newish neighbourhood theatre – it opened in 2013, and has been backed by both the local community and leading actors like Ian McKellen and the late Alan Rickman. Admirably directed by Hugh Ross, this was the first performance of this early Priestley play in many years.  Tim and Martha write that the theatre seats just 90, on three sides around the stage, which is sparsely set with touches of 1930s country house furnishings overlaid on to the theatre’s brickwork and steel girders. Here is their review.

The plot of The Roundabout re-unites a financially stricken Lord Kettlewell with his daughter Pamela, recently returned from Russia as a Communist – in a fine first professional appearance by Bessie Carter.  The play pivots on the dialogue between Lord K and his estranged wife, his mistress Hilda, his close friend Chuffy and other characters.  While being set against the backdrop of 1930s Europe, The Roundabout could equally well be grafted onto the present day.  Rather than a faded aristocrat confronted by his daughter’s revolutionary ideas, the piece could easily portray a child of a later era resisting the conservatism of her parents. Whilst firmly rooted in events of its time, the power of The Roundabout, as with much of Priestley’s work, lies in its relevance to a modern audience – a universality of dialogue and a timeless commentary on relationships and social class. He succeeds in both being of his time and transcending it. The best lines are from Chuffy, fantastically well acted with delicious comic timing by Hugh Sachs. A self-proclaimed social parasite, Chuffy belongs to the Edwardian era in its last throes and no longer sees his place in the modern world.  Hence he lends the play an outsider’s ear,  teasing out each character’s true nature. But the play as a whole belongs to the daughter Pamela, played by an effervescent Bessie Carter, who captivates the audience from the start.  In lesser hands the part might be merely precocious and irritating, but Carter sparkles as she carries off Pamela’s antics with mischievous charm. Carol Starks, as Lord Kettlewell’s mistress, draws the short straw:  she must be bland enough to fall for Pamela’s Puckish scheming, and meek enough to buckle under her antics.        Circularity is inherent in the title.  A wonderful piece of dialogue in the final act mirrors one at the beginning, when lines spoken to Pamela by her father are spoken the second time in reverse – by daughter to father, thus overturning their power relation.  One criticism of The Roundabout would be that Priestley indulges in more threads of circularity than necessary.  After a cracking first two acts, the final act

Bessie Carter as Pamela in The Roundabout.   Photo Robert Workman

loses steam and some of its comedic spark.  He focuses on tying up the loose ends of elements that have not been strongly established in the play.The relationship between Pamela’s parents also comes full circle as they reunite after a separation of 15 years.  A young artist who appears in the opening scenes returns in a rush to reveal himself as Pamela’s lost love. The scene of their reconciliation completes her own ‘circle of love’, but is more of an addendum than a real part of the story.  It is most disappointing that, having stated that she needs neither marriage nor children for her own happiness, Pamela throws herself into the arms of her lover in the final seconds, and thereby divests her standpoint of any serious worth.  In that moment she seems to collude with her parents’ assumptions about the follies of the young;  it feels like a lazy device for closing another circle.

Whilst the turmoil in Europe in the 1930s provides the wider setting for
The Roundabout, it would be a mistake to look for any extended social commentary in this play.  Rather than trying to read a lot into it, it is best to enjoy it for what it is – a celebration of sparkling dialogue and wit.  The lines are gifts to be delivered, and for the actors to relish; all comes to life in the transaction between word and performance. That both cast and audience enjoyed every line was palpable.  Apart from some criticism of the final act, The Roundabout was a joy to watch.

….and another!!

Manchester members Richard and Anne Unwin were in London with a free evening which coincided by happy chance with The Roundabout at Finsbury Park. They went to it with friends from the US, who thoroughly enjoyed the production.  Richard sent in a review in a similar vein:

This play was being staged for the first time since the early 1930s: more a case of discovering a script than a revival – and fortunately the theatre programme contained the entire script!  Our first impression was that this was going to be an ersatz Noel Coward play of manners, but this was mistaken.  It is obviously not going to become a great Priestley classic, but is a 1930s comedy of a fading aristocracy confronted by a challenge from converts to communism, showing the resilience of the upper classes and their well-honed instinct for survival.   Lord Kettlewell’s cynical and world-weary friend Chuffy, excellently acted by Hugh Sachs, delivers witty lines that lift The Roundabout from the obscurity which it has never deserved to a fine production that played well to its audience.”  Lady Kettlewell, finding herself short of cash, demonstrates a robust attitude in demanding: “Is there any money in communism?!”  The exchanges between these three characters maintained the momentum of the play and clearly succeeded in holding the audience’s attention, intimately close to the stage as we were.  And the Kettlewells’ communist daughter Pamela (Bessie Carter) plays her younger-generation role energetically and well.  The last word shall go to Parsons the butler (Derek Hutchinson), who pithily summed up the likely outcome of the conflict: “Communism is all right for a gentleman like yourself, but you’ll get over it.”

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