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A CurtainUp London Review
Cornelius, subtitled A Business Affair in Three Transactions was written, as was An Inspector Calls for the great British actor Ralph Richardson, and the play centres on the charismatic and extra loud character Jim Cornelius, who is all bluster and affability here played by Alan Cox.
When first played in 1935, this is what the author wrote about the play’s reception: “It had one of the most enthusiastic first nights, together with one of the best Presses, I have ever had, thanks to a very fine cast and a magnificent production by Basil Dean. I remember that some of my fellow playwrights were particularly warm in their appreciation of this piece, and yet audiences, interested but rather bewildered, never quite took to it.” It was revived in 1940 when again the audiences “never quite took to it”.
In the crowded office of Messrs Briggs and Murrison, we meet the cleaner Mrs Roberts (Beverley Klein), aged loyal workhorse Mr Biddle (Col Farrell), office frump Miss Porrin (Annabel Topham), office junior Lawrence (David Shelford); also the pretty typist Judy Evison (Emily Barber) who sets everyone’s heart a flutter. It is apparent from the phone calls from the bank that credit is a problem and they order a meeting of creditors, at which it is anticipated that Bob Murrison (Jamie Newall) will save the day with a string of collected orders from his recent sales trip.
In the most poignant of small scenes, a desperate and starving man (Andrew Fallaise) tries to sell typewriter ribbons and stationery sundries. He is an ex-officer and out of work in an England before the advent of the Welfare State and a reminder of just how difficult life was for those unemployed in the 1930s. Cornelius shows great compassion for this man from the officer class and gives him some money to buy food. The class divide is illustrated when another salesman, Eric Shefford (Lewis Hart), is thrown out by Cornelius who suspects he has doctored the contract and the resulting bill. However, Eric will gain something that Cornelius desires.
The first two acts, are centred around the economic predicament and the way things fall apart when Murrison returns, obviously in a very bad mental state. The final act is a curiosity as the play switches from things economic to the personal. Cornelius rejects the advances of two very different women and asks another for companionship.
Sam Yates’ production is full of period atmosphere helped by David Woodhead’s excellent design in recreating the cramped Holborn office and 1930s authentic costumes. The ensemble performances call for many actors to double up in roles and it is true that we are left musing on the whimsical central character of Jim Cornelius as he contemplates an emptied office and thinks about the end of his old partner Bob Murrison.
1935 is a time of great political upheaval in Europe in response to the economic situation but Priestley here concentrates on the effect this has on the individual — a man used to being resourceful finding himself adrift.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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