In J. B. Priestley’s 1932 play The Roundabout, Lord Kettlewell is having a trying day. He plays host to his mistress, to a dowager aristocrat, and to a chubby old buddy named Chuffy. What’s more, his daughter, a young woman he hardly knows and a communist to boot, drops by, maybe to stay. She’s brought a male comrade (they’ve just returned from Russia). And finally his estranged wife drops in.
This isn’t a great drama. In fact, there’s hardly any plot. People come and go, but the activities aren’t connected in any meaningful way and the story, such as it is, is highly predictable. In fact, the play would probably never receive any attention if it weren’t written by the playwright who wrote An Inspector Calls.
Cahoot Theatre Company, in association with The Other Cheek and Park Theatre, has just presented the play at 59E59 Theaters. And, stressful as it all may be for our long-suffering central character, this drawing room comedy is terrific fun for us. What makes the production so delightful is Priestley’s well of wit and the talents of the company.
The epigrams hardly ever stop in this play. Many of them come from the mouth of Chuffy, who has nothing to do with the story but whom Priestley includes for the dialogue opportunity he presents. When Lord Kettlewell tells him he’s jumping to conclusions, he replies “I know I am. It’s the only exercise I get.” When he’s accused of being a member of the effete governing class, he has a monumental line: “The class I belong to doesn’t govern. It’s just effete.”
Hugh Ross’ direction is marvelous. The pace never flags, so we never have time to wish that Priestley had written more fully developed characters. It’s all as swift and light as a stone skipping across water. Mr. Ross knows that we mustn’t take the script too seriously. And the strings of his stage are meticulously tuned in terms of blocking and musicality.
The cast have obviously mastered this form. It’s great to hear them deliver their clever lines in their British accents. They play light caricatures, generally very well. As Lord Kettlewell, the financier who’s lost a great deal of money and the hub of this dramatic wheel, Brian Protheroe is the picture of aristocracy. As Chuffy, Hugh Sachs is always witty, never insolent.
The protagonist of the play is Lord Kettlewell’s daughter, Pamela, meticulously played by Emily Laing in a highly animated, frenetic tone. I was delighted with her performance for most of the play, but after intermission I realized she never changed. Even when she describes a moment, late in the play, as “just when I’m being really reasonable,” she never calms down.
Priestley makes Pamela, as well as her platonic companion, Comrade Staggles, “Bolshy agitators”. He contrasts them with the decaying aristocrats. But he never discusses communism; he merely uses it as ornament, an opportunity for repartee. When Staggles tells the butler not to call him “Sir”, the latter replies “If we’re equal, I can call you what I like, Sir.” The dowager aristocrat, as well, who, like Chuffy, has nothing to do with the story, is there for her dialogue, not her ideas. She wonders if there’s any money in communism.
The drag on the production is the set, which is unimaginative. But The Roundabout is a great success for 59E59 Theater’s Brits of Broadway series. It’s easy to see what charm drawing room comedy had for our grandparents. Let’s hope that this production precipitates a revival of the form!