First staged in 1949, the latest instalment of the Finborough’s programme of Priestley revivals fits into a long tradition of established authors making brave new forays into the world of science fiction – anything from Nabokov’s sprawling Ada, to Ayckbourn’s loving cyborgs. Priestley’s play substitutes stylistic innovation or tinfoil-clad whimsy for deep, rose-tinted post-war nostalgia; an oddly backwards take on the future.
The year is 1975, and after bomb hits to its major cities, England has settled into an enjoyable idyll of rural self-sufficiency, malice-free bartering and high-minded cultural pursuits. A crumbling old manor houses an endearing family of sage old men and bright young things; the youth, Rosalie and Christopher, pass their days composing poems and violin ditties respectively, while the elder statesmen Stephen and his quaintly named bailiff Fred Voles sit back soaking in lethally strong home brews and eked-out tobacco. The sole representative of middle age and responsibility, Margaret, gets a hard deal of things as mother and servant to all, combining her duties of pinnied-great-provider with those of sage and sibyl, making eerily accurate predictions of coming woes. She’s right to be suspicious of the three strangers from far-flung lands who intrude on this odd menage; representatives of the Synthetic Products Corporation, they bond into, then threaten to break up her close knit family.
Priestley’s foreword describes the play as a comedy, but as the characters stalely group and regroup for setpiece debates, it’s hard to spot many potential laughs – maybe its trio of national stereotypes were played broader in the 1940s West End. Madame Irina is a Russian official who foolishly imagines herself as a business woman, provoking her English acquaintances into showing her that by rights the only business of a woman is to wait to be loved, and love in turn. She gradually learns, as Rosalie has, that the hue of her cheeks is the only fit topic for conversation, and throws over her uniform for a fetching frock. Meanwhile, army-issue archetype of American manhood Franklyn Hiemer is taught to swap marketing-speak for Shakespeare, and Indian engineer Dr Bahru fiddles on with the tele-machine destined to update their distant HQs.
Priestley’s text is liable – in the best science fiction tradition – to become lovingly, frustratingly enmeshed in detail, but it’s the minutiae of how many chickens you’d swap for a mutton chop that engross him, not mechanisms for self-setting dinner tables or force-field penknives. It’s clear that his sympathies lie firmly with the English, who are almost saint-like, confidently incorruptible by technology and material marvels. Rosalie bounds on stage, singing “where the bee sucks, there suck I”; Eleanor Yates’s sweet performance goes some way towards injecting charm into her character’s relentless lust of life and Shakespeare. Her puppyish male counterpart Christopher (Tom Grace) doesn’t quite have the animal magnetism to make his near-instant conquest of Irina convincing, though – worn out by the two of them, you can’t help but wonder if there’s something to be said for the sullen, cynical youths of the technological age.
Although the play’s themes stretch well beyond the confines of the drawing room, its message is sturdily in favour of tea, china neatly in its place – the synthetic strangers are there to assimilate, not advertise. There are odd moments of prescience – reflections on a more globalised future, and England’s supercession by its former colonies. Still, the whole play feels ploddingly, ponderously conservative; an old man’s armchair dreams and schemes for an older, simpler, world.