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DANGEROUS CORNER

by  J B Priestley

H.A.T.S


This was a brave decision by your company to tackle Priestley’s first play because it is by no means an easy or straightforward project.  It is mostly composed of dialogue with virtually nothing happening to break the flow of it  -  just the gunshot off stage and the evening panic later on.  This aspect is very demanding of the actors as it requires them to promote and maintain clarity and maximum interest throughout by their story-telling abilities and their innate feelings for emotion and drama.  The quality of Priestley’s writing is such that he creates incredible characters and weaves them in and out of the main themes so that you can’t see the joins.  There are no walk-ons in any of his plays and actors must be made aware of this.  Some, of course, have more to say than others but all have a significant place in his scheme of things.

This play was first presented in 1932 by Tyrone Guthrie at the Lyric Theatre in London and made into a film in 1934.  After dramatising “The Good Companions” – (an interesting, entertaining project for companies to consider), Priestley fancied writing effectively, using the strictest economy, for the stage.  This play received extremely poor reviews and, after three days, he only avoided it being taken off, by buying out the syndicate.  It then ran for six months and came to enjoy world-wide success although he remarked in 1938 – “It is pretty thin stuff when all is said and done”.  I was talking to an ex-professional actor the other day and he rated it as “the most interesting and rewarding play he had ever been in”, when he was in the cast in the West End.

The story happens over an evening when Robert and Freda Caplan are entertaining guests at their country retreat.  A chance remark by one of the guests ignites a series of devastating revelations, which highlights a hitherto undiscovered mixture of relationships and dark secrets, which have tragic consequences.  It is one of Priestley’s  “time” plays and ends with time reverting to the beginning of the evening and the chance remark not being made, the secrets remains hidden and the “dangerous corner” is avoided

Your set was a super example of its time – tasteful and evocative .  Doors SL and R  windows looking out on a garden – sumptuous red curtains; fireplace DSL; two seater couch CS with chairs – one with wooden arms CS – positioned around; mirror over mantelpiece; small tables – one for drinks US; bookcase superimposed on wall USL; pictures of cars on wall; - all in period and comfortable.  Because most of the furniture used throughout was DS much of the early action was DS too.  We were well into the play before I felt full use was being made of the whole stage.  After that point, good use was made – it was from when characters prepared to leave, before being summoned to return.  The whole pace of the play seemed to lift from then on – well done.

Your production was a good example of a cast playing essentially as a team rather than a set of individual characters.Priestley demands this and you exemplified the condition accruing maximum benefit from it.  I know that team playing is an important feature of performance in all plays but particularly in plays like this one.  At theatres like the Royal Exchange where, theatrically, there is no one “on the book”, casts have to be virtually “au fait” with the whole play.  We don’t necessarily have to go that far but in plays such as this one, it is vital for each character to be able to highlight, draw attention to, cast doubt on, emphasize, or reject, and, if necessary, cover up or “paper over” any untoward lapses.  Not easy and it requires total concentration at all times and, I felt, your cast went a long way towards that involvement.  Well done.

Your stage was not vast so I think the position of your prompt was a good one, stage CS and protected by the footlight covers, it meant that cast – if they needed her – simply had to continue to look front, rather than turning round and looking off stage for any help needed, thus not drawing attention to it, - not that she was needed much anyway.

As already suggested this is a very “wordy” play and, because of its convoluted explanations and descriptions, it is vital that the audience can hear all that is said.  I was on the front row and occasionally struggled to heard during the less emotional explanations.  Also, entrances and exits are very important.  They make audiences metaphorically sit up and take new interest.  On occasions cast drifted on and off, particularly in Act 1.  It has been said that “when actors enter, the audience will sit up, look and then listen.  After that it is up to the actor”.  Good advice.  There was plenty of pace when needed and pausing for effect was implicit in much of what went on.  After the shot and the sudden panic there was a tangible lightening of spirit – gloom, grief, accusation and despondency seemed to disappear as the “dangerous corner” had been averted and all was cheerful and normal again.  This important ingredient was illustrated well and the final  picture the audience was left with was of a group of friends enjoying each other’s company.  Much deep thought and detailed preparation by the directors, Garry Blair and Jeanette Thornley, had gone into this production and I felt it had been a good experience for actors, backstage and audience alike.  Well played Garry , Jeanette and your whole team.  You stretched the company and challenged your audience, and that was brave and forward thinking.

Colin Baker played Robert Caplan and had to display the whole gamut of emotion,ending potentially in suicide.  He coped with them realistically from finding out his wife was unfaithful with Martin, who most of them thought had committed suicide only to find out that Olwen says she killed him.  He cleverly showed how, as each new secret is revealed, his life was affected and he arrived at the stage of not being able to go on.  His was a careful measured performance with a shade too much  of slow, drawn out movement across the front of the stage while deliberating, thereby losing pace: a performance of dignity, intellect and integrity.

His wife, Freda was in the capable hands of Lindsay Andrews.  She was the hostess and the essence of hospitality and cheerful cordiality.  She showed a very believable character change as doubts and suspicions began to surface, and, when her secret came out, she clearly showed us the problems of a loveless marriage.  Believable in all she did, she struggled manfully with a lengthy cigarette-holder – perhaps a shorter one would have been easier to use.  This play was set in a time when much smoking by both sexes was practised.  I think the rules now are – if the plot calls for it or it is important to the plot, then it is permissible but most companies avoid it, if possible, or, do as you did  i.e suggest it but don’t  actually light it.  Then the problem arises – how do we hide lighting up or pretend to actually smoke – difficult again if you have never been a smoker – do we draw attention to doing it unconvincingly if, like me, you have never done it.  Interesting – most of your cast had to do it and coped well.

Betty Whitehouse was played by Lara Daintree and her husband, Gordon  by Roy Eckersley.  Betty , too, had been playing away although it transpired that her affair was one of mutual sexual satisfaction with Charles Stanton, played by  Chris. Silke.  Lara showed us grit and determination, a forceful personality and one who didn’t suffer fools gladly.  Underneath this strong armour though, there was a depth of feeling which Lara revealed most realistically and quite potently.  When Gordon reveals his true feelings for Martin, whose mysterious death started this complicated ball rolling, one wonders if Betty either knew or suspected.  In Lara’s capable hands, her character became multi-facetted and this contributed much to the play’s interest.  Roy, as Gordon, was initially an aggressive character – n o greys – all black or white.  As he learns about Betty and Charles, a couple of physical punch-ups occur between him and Charles which are restrained by the others.. I felt these set-to’s needed working on in rehearsal a little more.  However, Roy’s explanation of his feelings for Martin were most evocatively expressed.  We could actually feel how his life had changed and Roy was most moving in his interpretation.

Chris brought a further air of mystery to the plot.  In many ways the villain of the piece – he had been misappropriating money from the firm – he was, in some respects a lively spirit and one could see him as an important and amusing companion in the office and socially.  He justified himself and his imperfections quite believably and he told his story with strength.  I tried to decide unsuccessfully what he was fiddling with throughout Act 1.  My failure.  He obviously was concentrating on what was being said but it could have led to the belief that he wasn’t.

Linda Grierson-Irish played Olwen Peal, a close friend.  She had a great knowledge of the script and spoke her lines beautifully with a considerable depth of feeling.  Her emotional re-enactment of what happened on the final evening with Martin, after she recognised the music-box, was gripping in its clarity and the stark reality of what she had been through was re-told with real heart and even some sorrow.  She helped to maintain the mysterious relationships within the group by her very demeanour and superb facial expressions when not actually involved in the dialogue.  A gripping performance full of audience believability and sympathy.  Well played – a thoroughly moving characterisation.

Deborah Williamson took on the relatively small part of Maud Mockridge – the novelist.  She was only involved in Act One and at the end when the dinner party commences for all.  She made the most of her character in a very experienced manner with her bright face and clear cheerful dialogue, and lit up the stage when involved.

Well done – everyone involved.  A brave choice, bravely presented. Thank you for your hospitality and warm welcome. Happy play making