Director Sam Yates has done a marvellous thing. He has managed to revitalise J.B. Priestley’s play Cornelius – a play that, tellingly, has not been produced in London for over 70 years – whilst retaining a commendable loyalty to the play’s 1935 setting, characters and plot. About a firm teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, partner Jim Cornelius attempts to keep his office workers’ spirits up and creditors happy, until his own life optimism is put into question by the arrival of a beautiful young typist, Judy.

Priestley’s play could only too easily join the annals of fusty and outdated theatre, with its predictably revolver-laden plot progression and almost stereotyped characters. A play firmly of its time, Yates revives Corneliuswithout trying to bring it up to date, allowing the themes of economic and employment difficulties to resonate without forcing them upon us. With designer David Woodhead’s stunning set, meticulous in its attention to detail, Emily Barratt and Pippa Batt’s precisely chosen period costumes, and the aid of subtle and sophisticated lighting by Howard Hudson, the production’s aesthetics are a tour de force. This was combined with hauntingly well chosen music and sound composed by Alex Baranowski – I especially liked the simple potency of the lyrics chosen for Judy’s song.

With such sophistication shown from all the creative team, it was a shame that a couple of the actors’ performances were too highly strung. Yates has done a fine job of focusing the audience’s attention onto the appropriate person at the right moment and, mere metres away in the wonderfully intimate Finborough Theatre, the audience were tuned in to every twitch, shrug or mouth movement. Especially when the script gives the characters such emotionally explicit speeches, we didn’t need Annabel Topham (as Miss Porrin) and David Ellis (as Lawrence) to telegraph their emotions so much: both teetered on the edge of caricature at times and what they gained in laughs they lost in pathos.

However, the rest of the cast were uniformly impressive. Col Farrell as right hand man Biddle was superb, wholly convincing and utterly loveable, whilst Jamie Newall as the returned Murrison gave a compellingly understated performance of a man going mad. Emily Barber was also beautifully cast, entrancingly attractive and with a real sincerity about her that made her impact on Cornelius’s life entirely credible. Beverley Klein’s versatility is also notable: she gave both cleaning lady and landlord’s mother great character. However, it is Alan Cox’s performance in the title role that really intrigues. Cornelius’s jovial good nature comes hand in hand with depression and Cox handled the complexities of his character with masterful sensitivity. The importance and astuteness of Cox’s light hearted and flamboyant performance became increasingly evident as the play progressed. Informing the tone of the entire production, his vitality saved the piece from becoming despairingly predictable, and so detracted from the play’s most old fashioned feature.

A sensitive and nuanced revival of a classic, the Finborough wins through again, executing a tricky play with remarkable finesse.

Cornelius is playing at Finborough Theatre until 8 September. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.

Image credit: Finborough Theatre