It is not often you are given the privilege of seeing a show that has only been staged three times, but the New Actors Company treats its audience to a little-known gem by J.B.Priestley, published in 1943. They Came To a City follows nine protagonists as they find themselves outside the gates of a strange city. Priestley explores issues of class and status and how these things dictate their views on the world.
The Vault at the Southwark Playhouse is an ideal location for this bizarre story, an ambiguous setting made ever more mysterious by the self-opening black doors, part of the design by Mike Lees. In a venue that boasts an amazing scope for creativity, Lees and director Robert Laycock take full advantage of the dark, dingy surroundings.
A play with nine bold characters is rare, and even harder is to find the balance between them. However the casting was spot on and there were strong performances all round. Jean Perkins stood out as the wise Mrs. Batley, subtly taking in the people around her whilst always staying true to herself – she is probably the most honest character in the play, and the one everyone aspires to be like.
Although all the performances were well done, other notable people were James Robinson, who played Joe Dinmore, the hard-done-by wanderer who is torn between his hopes and reality. Though at times a little forced, Robinson kept the social issues at the forefront of the piece, constantly imploring the other characters and the audience to think about their understandings. Charlotte Donachie’s Alice was a clear portrayal of a working girl searching for something more; her heart-wrenching decision to leave The City with Joe was beautifully portrayed. Similarly, Daniel Souter’s scene as the passive Malcolm Stritton, forced to abandon his hopes in order to appease his wife, begged the question: would we give up our dreams for someone we loved?
The lighting, by Matt Tarbuck, truly enhanced this mysterious piece, illuminating the tunnels enough for you to imagine their depth, whilst still shrouding other corners in darkness. The changing hues to reflect the time of day were subtle but well executed, an ingenious way of projecting scenery with a very minimal set.
The combination of Priestley’s intelligent text, a fantastic venue for intuitive new theatre and clever direction by Laycock make They Came To A City a piece that is more than just social comment, but something on hopes, disappointment and breaking free. It is definitely the sort of play that you take back with you, mull over, and connect to your own life.
They Came To A City is playing at The Vaults in Southwark Playhouse, for more information and to book tickets see the website here.