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A CurtainUp London London Review

"You know, I’m reading a book about South America – Peru and the Andes. It’s making me feel restless, making me wonder a lot, about what I’ve missed. You know the feeling, old man. Right on the first page, there was a sentence . . . After a week in the Indian village, we decided to take the track into the clouds, to find among those heights, the lost city of the Incas . . . "— Cornelius
Alan Cox as Jim Cornelius (Photo: Robert Workman)
The Finborough pub theatre impresses with its eclectic mix of rare plays, always worth reviving. Anna Collins and 31 Productions in association with the Finborough bring J.B.Priestley’s Cornelius about life in a firm of London importers in the mid 1930s but before the commencement of the Second World War. We know Priestley’s socialist agenda from the fabulously successful An Inspector Calls where all have a hand in the terrible death of the central character, and so it is with his 1935 play Cornelius that we see the impact of the terrible depression from the 1929 stock market crash on companies dependent on imports and individuals looking for, or to stay in, employment.

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.

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Written by JB Priestley
Directed by Sam Yates

Starring: Alan Cox, Col Farrell, Beverley Klein
With: David Ellis, Lewis Hart, Robin Browne, Simon Rhodes, Xanthe Patterson, Andrew Fallaize, Emily Barber

Design: David Woodhead
Composer: Alex Baranowski
Lighting: Howard Hudson
Running time: Two hours with an interval
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking to 8th September 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th August 2012 performance at the Finborough, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED (Rail/Tube: Earls Court/West Brompton)

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