With trains rumbling ominously overhead, there couldn’t be a more fitting stage than Southwark Playhouse's Vault for J B Priestley's They Came to a City. The atmosphere is literally chilling, the damp bricks perfect for the play's mysterious opening.
Here, outside the walls of an unknown city, is where we find our nine characters, all from different social backgrounds. They have no idea how they got here, whether they're dreaming or simply dead. Soon the great doors open and they are let loose in a city free from disparity and social injustice. For some, it's a utopia; for others, a nightmare. And each must make the decision whether to stay or go.
Director Robert Laycock describes They Came to a City as a forgotten gem, a play by one of Britain's best dramatist which has only been staged three times since its premier in 1943. The city is certainly an interesting proposition, a theatrical device which allows Priestley to explore the concerns of a cross-section of World War Two's society. There's the downtrodden Alice and Joe; the old-fashioned Lady Loxfield, her daughter Philippa and Sir George; the self-made Cudworth; the disillusioned Malcolm and his highly strung wife, Mrs Stritton. This clash of classes and ideas is an interesting start but it soon becomes a little stale, a routine which is unfortunately all too familiar thanks to those BBC and ITV post/pre-war dramas.
The play only comes alive after the interval and once the characters are allowed to report back on their visit to the strange city. Thomas Shirley's Cudworth is an intriguing character, part modern banker, part old-fashioned social climber, and his reaction to the city's economic indifference strikes a nice, familiar cord. Daniel Souter's portrayal of Malcolm's dilemma is also absorbing. It's just a shame Priestley drops these human dramas for a more social and hopeful message. The play's focus on Alice and Joe's moral self-sacrifice at the close is simply not as engaging as their fellow characters' stubbornness and selfishness.
Ultimately, the play's moral, instructive message is a product of a society in the throes of a catastrophic world war, and a sentiment which is slightly lost on a modern audience. Yet this is a well-crafted piece of theatre, which poses enough questions to entertain and ponder.
By Jon Davis
They Came to a City is at the Southwark Playhouse until 28 May. More details here. Photo by Manuel Forero