Ask someone to name a JB Priestley play, and they’ll instantly say An Inspector Calls, probably because they studied it at GCSE. Ask them to name another and they probably won’t be able to, which is bizarre really, considering Priestley was a notably prolific playwright whose work enjoyed great popular acclaim during his lifetime.
His somewhat clumsily titled I Have Been Here Before has only received a handful of revivals since its premiere in 1937, but for good reason. One of Priestley’s three ‘time’ plays, exploring his fascination with the physics and philosophy of time, it draws on compelling – if dated – material but presents it awkwardly and inelegantly. Despite the best efforts of Anthony Biggs’ new production at the Jermyn Street Theatre, it never achieves more than a transient magnetism.
A mysterious German, Doctor Görtler (Edward Halsted) arrives at a remote Yorkshire Inn, where the ageing landlord (Keith Parry) and his widowed daughter (Vicky Binns) scrub tables and sober up the local bar flies. Their guests for the weekend are the single schoolteacher Mr Farrant (Daniel Souter) and the wealthy Mr and Mrs Ormund (David Schaal and Alexandra Dowling). Over the course of three acts, Halsted’s Görtler pokes and probes the motivations and misgivings of his fellow guests, angering them and upsetting them with his theories about the circular nature of time and the autonomy we have over our own destiny.
It’s a structure – omniscient stranger performs social experiment on unfamiliar but intimately connected strangers – that Priestley would use again in An Inspector Calls. But whereas in An Inspector Calls Priestley unveils the true guilt of the Birlings’ situation with stylish wit and a mounting horror, in I Have Been Here Before, all is telegraphed from the beginning. And his theme – determinism vs indeterminism – is as old as the hills, or as old as the theatres of Athens at any rate, and fails to engage a twenty-first century audience.
Part of the problem is that Priestley’s philosophical interest is so overtly explored and his characters so obviously vassals for opposing arguments. Conversations quickly deconstruct into explications and explanations, and the majority of the characters feel as if they are there to outline Görtler’s/Priestley’s thinking. Now everyone has an unread copy of A Brief History Of Time on their bookshelf and Brian Cox is never of the TV, this surface-deep discussion lacks the bite it must have had 70 years ago.
Priestley’s socialist sympathies, so prominent in his later plays, seep through here as well – there are more than shades of Mr Birling in Mr Ormund, and the weak-chinned Mr Farrant is surely an ancestor of the weak-chinned Gerald Croft – but the primary subject here is time and its hold on humanity, and it’s essayed with a relentless, almost dogmatic, lack of guile.
Biggs’ production never really hits its stride either. Cherry Truluck and Alberta Jones’ inappropriately minimalist set – a horseshoe catwalk with a door at both ends, and the audience arrayed to both sides – totally removes any earthy Yorkshire-ness with which the Görtler’s thinking can be contrasted, a problem exacerbated by a set of performances that range from the charmingly naturalistic to the irritatingly mannered.
Parry is enjoyable as the creaking, wheezing, simple-minded landlord Sam, as is Binns as his fussy, interfering daughter. Schaal finds enough barrel-chested bluster as Ormond, but has a tendency to rattle through his lines at a distracting lick, and there is little emotion between Dowling and Souter (I only realised they had fallen instantly in love when they literally fell into each other’s arms). Halsted is well cast as the precise Dr Görtler, his clipped accent never wavering and his presence disconcertingly spectre-like throughout.
In truth, Biggs’ production falters, but if Priestley’s philosophy of circular time is true, they will at least get another go at getting it right next time round.
I Have Been Here Before is playing the Jermyn Street Theatre until 21 May 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.
Photo: Scott Rylander