Priestley is fond of dramatic irony, and lays it on particularly heavily in this, apparently his favourite play. It is rarely performed, perhaps because, as a piece of drama, it offers relatively little to a director. There are so many mentions that it is set in 1912 that one cannot ignore the looming horror of World War One – and the audience is continually encouraged to recognise that although we know what’s coming, the general feeling expressed by the characters is one of optimism of a bright future. So far, so ironic, but it all gets rather tiresome and inescapable after a while.
It is presumably supposed to make us question the complacency of those whose comfortable, upper-middle-class existence is about to shattered by conscription, bereavement and the privations of war. Although it does set the Kirby family’s petty problems in context, this idea of knowing what’s coming does little more than give the audience a sense of superiority. Unlike with other Priestley plays (An Inspector Calls uses very similar tropes), in Eden End it is very hard to extrapolate the Kirby’s concerns to become a caustic look at a wider societal malaise. Yes, they are smug and safe and blinkered, yes they are worried about ultimately unimportant things, but it’s hard to see what Priestly and director Laurie Sansom are driving at besides recognising that hindsight is a wonderful thing.
There were other oddities, too: the set (Sara Perks) was beautiful, floating on an island of its own above the stage, and yet this dreamy setting is treated as naturalistically as possible, with time-appropriate props and costumes. The incongruity was not a problem, it was just a bit strange and, again, felt a bit un-thought-through. William Chubb, as Dr Kirby, was weak, which perhaps negated some of the impact that his thoughts about the future could have had – he muses on what’s to come with a blind optimism that is never really challenged. Unfortunately, Chubb was neither charismatic nor convincing enough to pull off a speech about his almost utopian vision for the future, and these scenes consequently fell rather flat, despite the best efforts of Charlotte Emerson’s Stella. Emerson was a highlight, particularly when playing off Daisy Douglas’s stolid Lilian. The sisterly friction was brittle and brilliant, with Lilian’s resentment emanating from Douglas is fierce waves.
Little brother Wilfred (Nick Hendrix, in his professional debut) was less convincing in the first half, but found his feet playing legless in the second. His after-the-pub scene with Charles (a louche, charming Daniel Betts) was one of the high points of the evening, and directed with a subtlety sometimes missing elsewhere. Sansom has done a good job of coaxing nuanced, delicate performances from Douglas as the dependable but angry Lilian and from Charlotte as the highly-strung Stella, but perhaps neglected to always do the same with the male cast members. Betts clearly has fun playing Charles as a shallow chancer, and, although he does so with warmth and wit, it would have been nice to be given a bit more depth, too.
Perhaps I am too impatient, but this production took slow-burn to extremes while managing to still gabble some of the dialogue. It took a very long time to get going at all, and once it had started it remained predictable and slightly insipid. The domestic drama needs setting in its wider context to have any clout or point to it, and Priestley’s script is severely lacking in this. Some of the wistful moments when Stella or Dr Kirby mused about what might have been, or what might be, could have been moments of illumination, but in the stodge of the rest of the plot they get rather lost. Sansom has done some interesting things with the staging, but cannot redeem what is ultimately a rather pointless play.