I’m not all that familiar with JB Priestley’s works, other than An Inspector Calls and, to a far lesser extent, The Good Companions. Apparently not many people have had the opportunity to get to know They Came to a City, as according to the programme it has only been staged three times since its original premiere in 1943.
After seeing this new production in the vaults at Southwark Playhouse, I can quite understand why.
Priestley’s tale involves nine people from all of Britain’s social strata who find themselves lost in darkness, with no idea how they got there or for what purpose. As night gives way to morning, they realise they are outside the walls of a strange city. One by one, they go in to explore, although each has a different motive for doing so.
As Act II starts, the characters emerge from spending a few short hours in the city. Some have been changed by it, some entranced – and others hate it and want to return to their original lives poste haste.
With a first act that concentrates on how Britain’s different classes relate to one another in unfamiliar surroundings, the necessarily broad strokes of caricature often overwhelm any chance of real character. In some cases, the actors do well with what little they’re given – Jean Perkins’ Mrs Batley, for example, has stepped straight out of a Victoria Wood send-up of how working class London cleaners from the 1940s were forever represented, but she ends up being the warmest, most enchanting of the nine. James Robinson and Alice Foster also shine as Joe and Alice, sparkling and fizzing with obvious chemistry as a navy stoker and barmaid who find themselves attracted to one another.
But even with their performances, the first act struggles with its inherent talkiness. There’s a better sense of momentum after the interval, as the reactions to what they have seen spurs some characters into personal, internal conflict. Here, the standout performance belongs to Jessica Francis, as the controlling Mrs Stritton who hates the city and everything it stands for, and Daniel Souter as her husband, who has had the opposite experience. The conflict between the two produces sparks that are otherwise missing in the play as a whole.
The cavernous space of the Playhouse’s Vault proves difficult for some performers, with some characters on the verge of inaudibility while others find no difficulty in projecting to the back of the bleachers seating. But even if we could hear every word, I don’t think it would help this piece all that much, for it’s the quality of the writing that holds this play back from being anything other than a best-forgotten curio.
They Came to a City runs until May 28. More details at southwarkplayhouse.co.uk