Life upon the wicked stage ain’t ever what a girl supposes. There was certainly very little glamour to be found amongst the minor ranks of the Edwardian repertory system. The protagonist of this slow-burning family drama dealing with change, belonging and the importance of maintaining illusions is Stella Kirby (an effervescent Charlotte Emmerson), an actress who returns to the titular family nest after several years of silence, seeking respite from dingy dressing rooms, dreary provincial towns and far-reaching but aimless travel, breathlessly expressing her delight at coming home. During her absence, her mother, who never approved of having a daughter on the stage, has died; her doctor father is worn out; and her two younger siblings have grown up and are trying to make sense of their own positions in the world.
This comparatively neglected play by JB Priestley, written in the midst of a new wave of political turmoil in 1934 and set in 1912, lays the dramatic irony of the ordeal ahead thick and fast, with remarks such as, “1916 should be a marvellous year” and the interspersion of a music hall routine entitled ‘I Want to Be a Military Man’. Priestley and the audience are all too aware that this solid middle class existence is about to change forever, while the frail Dr Kirby (an odd performance by William Chubb, who seems quite uncomfortable) anticipates a tranquil era ahead, while wondering if he made the right decision by choosing stability over taking a chance in London.
This co-production between English Touring Theatre and Royal & Derngate Northampton is very patchy technically (at least on the night I saw it): I’m not sure if it was faulty sound design or poor vocal projection, but I strained to hear much of it. The lighting is amongst the least effective I’ve ever seen; the action takes place on an elliptical platform filled with furniture and knick-knacks (designed by Sara Perks), evoking a stage within the stage that’s surrounded with floodlights and hanging light bulbs at the back. It’s a clever concept, but the execution is terribly clumsy, particularly the central hanging lamp that keeps flickering.
Several critics have commented on the Chekhovian influence, highlighted by the weariness of characters in stifled existences wishing for a brighter and more stimulating future. Having seen Uncle Vanya recently, there seemed to be echoes of Sonya and Yelena in the spinsterish sister, Lilian, who does all the work but gets none of the credit, while her more glamorous sister only has to breeze in and dominate all the male attention – namely the local squire Geoffrey Farrant (Jonathan Firth), whom Lilian herself is in love with. The mark of a wedding ring on Stella’s ring finger enables Lilian to cut Stella’s visit short by inviting her estranged husband Charlie Appleby (a miscast Daniel Betts) to disrupt Stella.
There’s a tedious drunk scene (a theatrical device that bores me senseless) between Appleby and the theatre-mad younger brother Wilfred (Nick Hendrix in a confident professional debut, though I found him a little too much like a modern hyperactive teenager). Wilfred is also in transition, on leave from his job with the East African Development Company in Nigeria, where he is a figure of authority, but at home is still a little boy to the faithful old housekeeper Sarah (played with warmth and exasperation by Carol MacReady), with whom he becomes increasingly snappy. Daisy Douglas gives an effectively waspish performance as Lilian, the daughter who has kept the home in order, fearful that Stella’s re-appearance will destroy the stability she has worked towards.
This isn’t a play that lends itself naturally to experimentalism, though director Laurie Sansom dabbles with some expressionist touches, complementing the way in which Stella plays out her delights and anguishes like a drama (which Lilian snidely suggests that she enjoys), culminating when she and Appleby get their own show on the road and Eden End returns to the way it was. I’m a magpie for plays of this period, and while I’m not convinced that Eden End (a favourite of Priestley himself) is a neglected gem, nor that this is a great production, it has its moments of genuine pathos amidst the chattering. The wistfulness of the road not taken is something that will always be resonant – there is a very different path ahead, but not one that the Kirbys expect.