J.B. Priestley was not scared of experiment. His plays frequently tinkered with time, playing games with temporal linearity and possible futures – without the aid of a souped-up DeLorean. He was particularly intrigued by J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (ditto Aldous Huxley) and Dunne’s ideas bled through into his work.
They Came to a City is a rather different beast, hovering uneasily between parable and polemic. Written in 1943 and providing the basis for a forgotten film by Ealing Studios in 1944, it’s been infrequently staged in the years since the Second World War. This wartime genesis is crucial to its understanding. It’s a hymn to the necessity of change written during a time of conflict and upheaval, a rallying cry. Keen to avoid the conventions of the hated ‘debate play’, Priestly sculpted something altogether more Utopian, though he peopled it with recognisable ‘types’.
A group of strangers find themselves in a mysterious location, hazy as to both where they are and how they came to be there. They are, as the rules of such situations dictate, an impeccable cross-section of society with every class represented. There’s the widowed Lady Loxfield and her daughter Philippa; Sir George Gedney in his golfing gear; Cudworth, a shrimpish self-made man; a placid bank clerk Malcolm and his dagger-eyed wife, Dorothy; Mrs Batley, an elderly Walthamstow cleaning lady; Joe, a young man who’s deeply disillusioned with the human race, railing against the “boss class”; and Alice, a fiery young waitress who’s clearly done a bit of living in her twenty-eight years.
The opening scenes are dreamlike and stylized, the characters arriving one by one in this dark, featureless place, with an odd little doorbell chime and a roaming spotlight highlighting every arrival. These scenes have an intriguing hybrid quality: a little bit Threads, a little bit Upstairs, Downstairs (or, at least, the BBC reboot). One of the characters, not unreasonably, wonders if they might not all be dead, though another reassures her that can’t be the case as she’s still carrying her shopping.
As the sun rises the characters find that they are standing at a wall overlooking an unfamiliar city, the gates to which are firmly shut. At dawn these doors open of their own accord and they are allowed to enter. There they find a place where the people live happy, fulfilling lives and the notion of making money for its own sake is alien. It’s a city of bliss, a city where artists and thinkers are revered and people work together for the common good. The characters all seem to understand that at sunset, when the doors close once more, they will face a choice – to remain in this place forever or return home.
Some, inevitably, balk at what they find there, this city with its lack of social hierarchies and its spirit of cooperation, while others are enchanted. Priestley’s message comes through clearly, as if barked through a loudhailer: if humanity is to evolve, to avoid another devastating conflict, than it’s vital they embrace change, even if to do so would involve a new way of living and the loss of certain social comfort blankets (Lady Loxworth and Sir George continually rattle through the names of their mutual aristocratic acquaintances like a mantra). Others find the prospect of change on this scale simply too terrifying to contemplate, something that is equated to a living death.
In his enthusiasm, Priestley lets characterisation slide. No one really transcends their type, and a few sketchy details – a mother’s unexpected reminiscence, a husband’s sacrifice –are not really enough to ground the play emotionally; not one person redeems themselves or surprises with their choices and behaviour. Of course it would be the old cleaning lady who ‘knows things’ and is open to all the city promises, rather than, say, Sir George in his plus-fours. The characters are there to serve the message.
Robert Laycock’s production is a solid ensemble effort (with Daniel Souter’s Malcolm and Charlotte Donachie’s Alice standing out) but it can’t overcome the fact that Priestley’s symmetrical structure is more constrictive than it is elegant. Matt Tarbuck’s lighting design allows the initially dingy space to slowly warm with the rising of the sun; the city behind the wall seems to glow like the contents of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase while Lucy Rushbrook’s rather pedestrian set blends appealingly with the brick of the Southwark Playhouse vaults.
If anything, on a thematic level at least, the play most closely resembles Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma with one significant twist; whereas Coupland’s characters were granted a glimpse of the end of the world as they knew it, Priestley’s characters are allowed to see what the world could be if they let it. Both sets of characters, not to mention readers and audiences, are required to learn from all they’ve seen, to return to the world striving and questioning, alert and alive.