They Came To A City by J B Priestley - directed by Angela Gee
This is an unusual choice of play by Priestley although some familiar themes soon appear as the action unfolds. Priestley's fascination with the potential for society to re-shape itself to meet the changes time brings is a constant idea in his work perhaps best known in 'An Inspector Calls' with the Inspector's 'fire, blood and anguish' speech which appears towards the end of the play. There is a similarity in structure between these two plays with each character given the chance to explain their circumstances and views on what they are experiencing with different choices being made as the door closes again. It would be very easy to see these characters as stereotypes of a disappearing society and it would be interesting to see how the group dealt with this challenge.
Front of house Dave Hancock
This was my first visit to this group in this venue and initially we had trouble determining whether or not we were in the right place! We were warmly welcomed into the hall which is a large and spacious venue. A well organised team were dealing with refreshments, raffle tickets and programmes as the audience arrived.
Publicity/programme Janet Hancock
I found the programme well designed and very informative, a useful backdrop to the production. It was also interesting to read about the group and see the range of productions previously tackled. The poster outside the venue on the notice board on London Road was almost hidden and a brighter notice advertising the performance would have helped.
Production manager Tricia Childs
A crucial role in bringing things together Tricia has achieved a smoothly run production. There is a strong sense of the group working together.
Stage manager/assistant stage manager Chris Saxton, Carol Danaher
Although there are no major scene changes in this production there is still plenty for stage crew to be aware of and co-ordinate. All seems to have been efficiently dealt with.
Set design & construction Geoff Hadley, Peter Goodwin, Chris Saxton, Bob Speller & the Company
The design of the set in terms of shape and space worked well but I did not like the appearance of it. It looked a bit like a pantomime castle which was unfortunate and not in keeping with the subject of the play. I agree with the comment made in the programme that getting the right set for this play is not easy and I can see why you went for an unrealistic appearance but I think that there could have been alternatives especially with regard to the colour and style of the stonework. Shades of yellow-brown and more subtle outlining of the stones would have reduced the 'pantomime' effect. The sky and clouds behind were appropriate and the wall at the back was a sensible height to fit in with the action. As for the door itself, it did look a little odd being a completely different colour to the rest of the set and although you wanted it to be distinctive I'm not convinced this was the most effective way of doing it. In some ways having the door being unremarkable in appearance could be equally effective.
However in terms of giving the actors plenty of space and positions to sit and stand it worked well.
Lighting Kenton Church
This was unobtrusive and allowed the audience's eye to be drawn to the door at the appropriate moments. A clear and effective use of lighting to enhance the action of the play.
Sound Chris Saxton
Sounds cues were accurate and appropriate.
Prompt/continuity Becki Whybro, Carole Shipley
These support systems were in place for the actors. Unfortunately a prompt was needed at a crucial point in the play but the necessary intervention allowed the action to move on.
Costumes Maisie Tunbridge & the cast
The choice of costumes clearly defined the characters for us. Mrs. Stritton's was particularly effective, the neat, prim outfit was beautifully accessorised, nothing was overdone and it looked very elegant. Alice's red and black combination worked well although her handbag seemed more of a hindrance than a help, I felt it got in the way and unlike Mrs. Batley or Lady Loxley's it didn't look right. The gentlemen were nicely differentiated through their costumes from the golfing outfit of Sir George to the dapper appearance of Cudworth. Joe's boiler suit and cap clearly indicated his social class as well as his occupation. A well co-ordinated effort giving us a clear feel of the period.
Music Rob Tunbridge
What a pleasure to have some music specifically designed for the production, it was very atmospheric and well suited to the rather spiritual feel of the play, a lovely touch.
Lady Loxfield Sharon Goodwin
A lovely character part, Sharon gave us a clear impression of Lady Loxfield's constantly anxious behaviour and overriding concerns. We saw that clearly increase as the first half went on and she also showed us the fine line between maternal concern for Philippa and trying to control her every move! Nicely observed mannerisms helped the physical representation of the character and her accent supported the characterisation well. A split between the different generations in the play (a common theme in Priestley) was a tricky situation and her final parting with her daughter seemed understated.
Philippa Loxfield Shelley Goodwin
This is an awkward role in the play, Philippa's interactions with her mother are quite repetitive which makes it hard to present them differently. When Shelley was speaking upstage it was hard to hear her and I would like to have heard more varied tone to her delivery, in places a quicker response to cues would have helped to sustain pace. Her final speeches to her mother needed a firmer, more confident tone that was also affectionate, a really tricky challenge. Physically, Shelley's body language was introverted and that needed to change as she went through the play so her new found purpose and confidence is expressed in her posture. This is a characterisation that needed more work.
Cudworth Geoff Hadley
As Cudworth, Geoff's appearance was good, his body language and gestures were clear and sharp wholly appropriate for the characterisation. Vocally we needed to hear more of that sharpness especially in the exchanges with Sir George, which at times seemed quite laboured. This is a character designed to represent a type and is not fully rounded in the script but Geoff brought an air of impatience to him which worked well in his exchanges with other characters.
Mrs. Batley Helen Langley
Helen's performance stood out for me as being the most sincere. She was entirely comfortable in her characterisation and that communicated itself strongly to the audience. We felt recognition in her mannerisms and style of dialogue, which Helen delivered in a kindly manner. She was also a narrative link throughout the first half of the play with her refrain of a 'little bit of shopping' marking new sections of the action. I loved her reactions and unruffled manner as she encountered the various characters. Her performance also enhanced that of the others during their interactions with her.
Sir George Gedney Chris Wright
Looking every inch the 'interrupted golfer' Chris's body language conveyed his sense of irritation and bewilderment at the situation he finds himself in. Vocally though, we had a problem hearing him, the vague blustering entirely appropriate for the character was not helpful to the audience and I fear we missed much of what he said unless he raised his voice. Line delivery was also slow in places and that was unhelpful to other actors who had to react to those lines.
Mrs. Stritton Tricia Childs
This was a performance that grew in stature particularly in the second half of the show. Her emotional journey was gradually revealed with good, naturalistic reactions from Tricia. The scenes between Mr. And Mrs. Stritton in the second half were very moving especially in the moments where Mrs. Stritton is pushing her husband into a choice. I also like Tricia's distinct reactions to other characters, conveyed not only through her lines but also through her body language.
Malcolm Stritton Syd Smith
Syd gave us a very sympathetic portrayal of a man whose sense of duty, loyalty and affection led him to his difficult decision. All this was clearly conveyed to the audience through his restrained manner and gentle hand gestures. It is easy to forget that this character also has aspirations and unfulfilled dreams. His reaction to the confrontation with his wife was reflected in his use of body language and gesture.
Alice Foster Jean Speller
Alice is probably the most colourful character in this piece and Jean played her with confidence and panache. I liked her forthright manner and vocally she was crystal clear. At times her accent wavered but she used different tone and register to good effect. This is quite a subtle role as she is not a 'brazen barmaid' type, there is a side to her that longs for gentility and Jean brought that out when she was delivering the speeches about her jobs. Her relationship with Joe was sincerely played with small reactions supportively deployed.
Joe Dinmore Andy Millward
Like Mrs. Batley, Joe is a character written in a very positive way displaying many of the qualities Priestley admires. Andy has a strong stage presence and his open manner in this role worked well. He has a clear voice and his speech towards the very end when he is persuading Alice to go with him to help take what they have seen back to their own time was well delivered. Unsentimental, Joe speaks of action with passion and Andy did mange to capture some of that in his characterisation.
Direction Angela Gee
It is always good to see a production of a play that is not often performed and people who know Priestley's more famous works would have found this interesting. It is not an easy piece as there are a number of 'set speeches' which could be very static. For a director working with their cast allowing the actors to develop convincing delivery within their characterisation whilst avoiding stereotyping is really hard. I think the end result was mixed.
Moving the characters around the set was thoughtfully done and good use of different points for characters to address the audience such as Mrs. Batley sitting downstage left with her basket created an intimate atmosphere to tell her story. Regarding exits and entrances I did wonder why you hadn't gone for having the characters arrive at the start and leave at the end through the audience, that would have helped the over-reliance on the stage left exit. The downstage right area was little used??
Some characterisations worked better than others with notably, Philippa and Sir George needing more input. Others were well matched with their roles and led to some poignant moments, the conversation between Mrs. Batley and Mrs. Stritton for example. Most characters were confident with their lines and most were delivered clearly. A couple of times characters spoke over one another, this was noticeable in the first half of the play but settled in the second half.
The pace in the first half of the play also sagged a little as the 'debate' about the new society got under way. The second half felt more fluent and the production gained momentum as the characters made their decisions. The audience were very attentive throughout and it is to the credit of the direction and the cast that their attention was 'held' by the production.
Thank you for the opportunity to see this production and your kind hospitality,
Maggi Fisher and Penny Davidson-North Essex Theatre Guild
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