Normal offices are all alike; every dysfunctional office is dysfunctional in its own way? Sam Yates’s impeccably timed revival of J.B. Priestley’s 1935 play Cornelius (unrevived since its original run) offers a glimpse into 1930s office life and also holds a mirror up to contemporary society: businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, young people with no prospects, as well as the usual workplace rivalries and bickering, while remaining cheerful and carrying on.
Jim Cornelius is a partner in the Holborn-based aluminium import firm Briggs and Murrison and his laid-back approach to life gives the impression of being somewhat adrift in the world. A wider social context enters the tight-knit office in the form of cold callers, most strikingly an ex-Air Force officer (Andrew Fallaize) reduced to selling stationary that no one wants to earn a pittance after a breakdown. While Cornelius hopes that senior partner Mr Murrison (a well-observed portrayal of despair by Jamie Newell) will save the day and rescue the business from bankruptcy, typist Miss Evison leaves suddenly to join the husband no one knew she had in Newcastle and her attractive sister Judy steps in. The office ingÃ©nue awakens Cornelius’s own unfulfilled longings – what happiness did the aluminium trade ever bring anyone?
Yates’s production allows the prescient contemporary parallels speak for themselves and embraces the period setting. The attention to detail is evident in meticulous set by David Woodhead (the stage directions state that it’s old fashioned for its time) and in the performances. In the title role, the tremendously engaging Alan Cox could have stepped out of a 1930s film and offers a vivid sense of what it would have been like to watch an actor like Ralph Richardson (for whom the role was created) or Trevor Howard in action. Cornelius is a dreamer prone to wild flights of fancy who would rather organise a variety show than a creditors meeting, retaining a sense of childlike mischievousness at odds with his serious business career.
As in Priestley’s inferior Eden End, the two women call to mind Chekhov’s Yelena and Sonya. Annabel Topham’s lovelorn secretary Miss Porrin quivers with repression as the charming Emily Barber’s delicately vivacious Judy effortlessly captivates the object of her affections without even wanting his attention.
There are a number of cherishable performances: Col Farrell is thoroughly endearing as the long-serving bookkeeper Biddle, kept stimulated in his work by the way in which “every number has its own character”. The excellent Beverley Klein also provides good support as the chirpy, wisdom-imparting charlady (is there any other kind?) and the landlord’s niece attending a creditors meeting as a diversion from her usual routine, and David Ellis gives a likable performance as errand boy Lawrence, who has outgrown this menial position but has no opportunities for promotion.
The plotting and foreshadowing are rather obvious, but Priestley pleasingly brings the various strands of personal turmoil and social commentary together with a light touch through the eyes of sensitively observed characters. The Finborough’s most notable rediscovery since Blanche McIntyre’s production of Emlyn Williams’s Accolade last year.