JB Priestley’s little known play The Roundabout is a light comedy about the class system in 1930s England. Richard Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe), a wealthy businessman is losing all his invested money. However, his real troubles begin when his daughter Pamela (Bessie Carter), a young woman he barely knows, arrives unannounced to his house. Returning from Russia with her friend Staggles (Steven Blakeley), Pamela is full of communist conviction, and bound to clash with her bourgeois father. Matters get even more complicated when Kettlewell’s mistress also turns up, followed by his wife, who he hasn’t seen in years. It is a situation full of potential. But despite its quite clever setup that could potentially turn into an interesting debate of ideologies, Priestley’s play never becomes more than silly fun, and so does not arrive to a meaningful conclusion either.
Polly Sullivan’s patterned set is delightfully lit by David Howe, who’s lighting design makes you feel like you really are in a mansion. The play itself is quite wordy (it is Priestley we are talking about after all), and so the actors have very little to do other than talking. This would not be a problem as the script is very entertaining, but I often felt that Hugh Ross’ blocking was a little busy: too often the actors stood up only to sit down again, as if they were trying to fill the space with action instead of letting the words do the work. This became most apparent in Carter’s performance as Pamela; despite her high energy, dedication and charisma, she never had an empty moment and wouldn’t let her performance breathe, as if every word she said had multiple ideas behind it; simplicity and stillness would have helped her moments land. It is Hugh Sachs, playing the observant and witty Chuffy Saunders who seems most comfortable in this verbal play: his focused stillness always leads to a wonderfully executed remark, making him one of the most enjoyable characters to watch.
By the end of the play new and old lovers find each other, the servants remain servants and comrade Staggles enjoys the luxuries of being wealthy with a glass in hand. It certainly is not a risk-taking play, and Ross’ direction does not seem to discover anything new in it. But if you are after some traditional fun, you will certainly have a good time.
The Roundabout is playing at Park Theatre until September 24.
Image by Robert Workman