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A CurtainUp Review

J. B. Priestley's Cornelius is a Highlight of Brits Off Broadway 2013
By Elyse Sommer

. . .don't you ever feel that you've wasted yout life, just as if you'd taken it and poured it down the drain?.— Cornelius to Biddle who's much more able than his longtime employer to accept life as it comes.

They can't have closed everything up, so that we're all like bees in a glass case. It's unthinkable..
— the always questioning Cornelius, this time all shook up about the desperate situation an ex-army officer finds himself in at the height of the Great Depression.
Alan Cox as the title character in Cornelius
J.B. Priestley ( 1894 —1984), is one of my favorite British novelists, short story writers and dramatists. While his most famous and successful play, An Inspector Calls, hasn't been revived in New York since a successful 1995 Broadway production, other plays by him do turn up occasionally and I wouldn't miss a chance to catch anything with his name above the title, even if it's not on a par with his big hit. The most recent such opportunity dates back five years to the Mint Theater's revival of A Glass Cage Happily, another Priestly play, Cornelius has now landed in New York.

This play about a British import company's obsolescence in the face of a changing business practices and the Great Depression, is a highlight of this year's Brits Off-Broadway Festival. Like An Inspector Calls, it was written for Sir Ralph Richardson but the play does not need a world renowned star to bring fresh life to the play's title character, one of the partners of the firm in its death throes.

Over the course of Cornelius's three acts (or as they are sometimes referred to, A Business Affair in Three Transactions, Alan Cox portrays the title character with dash and subtlety. He lets us see an ebullient, self-confident man become increasingly less confident and more reflective. As we watch the cracks penetrate his bravado, like age lines on a maturing face, our hearts go out to him as he makes a last ditch attempt at romance and final battle to deal with the question of what to do with the rest of a life he now considers to have been misspent.

But, while Cox, is the central figure, all the actors (and this is satisfyingly large cast) do topnotch work, playing more than one role. Except for Pandora Colin who now plays Miss Perrin and Alex Bartram who's taken over the small but important part of Eric Shefford, this is the same cast that our London critic, Lizzie Loveridge, last year reviewed at the Finborough Theatre. In fact that entire production has crossed the pond.

The 59E59 complex is more slick and modern than the quaint Finborough (Check out the picture in the program), but the Main Stage has been transformed perfectly into the Offices of the bankruptcy bound London office of Briggs and Murrison in 1935, the height of the world-wide Depression. It's an old fashioned setting but like so many plays set in this era, Cornelius, is not just look back on th well-made 3-act play, but more timely than one would wish it to be.

Given that this is the same production reviewed last year, Lizzie Loveridge's review still sums up its details and strengths. I'm therefore reposting her review below the production notes and end my own remarks with this advice: Go see it while you can.

Original Review

Production Notes
Cornelius by J.B. Priestley
Directed by Sam Yates
Cast Emily Barber (Judy Evison), Alex Bartram (Eric Shefford), Robin Browne (Mortimer/Little Man), Pandora Colin (Miss Perrin), Alan Cox (Cornelius), David Ellis (Lawrence), Andrew Fallaize (Ex-Officer/Dr. Schweig), Col Farrell (Biddle), Beverley Klein (Mrs. Roberts/Mrs. Reade), Jamie Newall (Robert Murrison), Xanthe Patterson (Young Woman), Simon Rhodes (Prichet/Coleman)
Design: David Woodhead
Composer: Alex Baranowski
Lighting: Howard Hudson
Stage Manager: Jess Johnston Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission after Act 2
From 6/04/13; opening 6/11/13 closing 6/30/13
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 4th press preview

Original Review

You know, I'm reading a book about South America — Peru and the Andes. It's making me feel restless, making me wonder a lot, about what I've missed. You know the feeling, old man. Right on the first page, there was a sentence . . . After a week in the Indian village, we decided to take the track into the clouds, to find among those heights, the lost city of the Incas . . . — Cornelius
The Finborough pub theatre impresses with its eclectic mix of rare plays, always worth reviving. Anna Collins and 31 Productions in association with the Finborough bring J.B.Priestley's Cornelius about life in a firm of London importers in the mid 1930s but before the commencement of the Second World War. We know Priestley's socialist agenda from the fabulously successful An Inspector Calls where all have a hand in the terrible death of the central character, and so it is with his 1935 play Cornelius that we see the impact of the terrible depression from the 1929 stock market crash on companies dependent on imports and individuals looking for, or to stay in, employment.

Cornelius, subtitled A Business Affair in Three Transactions was written, as was An Inspector Calls for the great British actor Ralph Richardson, and the play centres on the charismatic and extra loud character Jim Cornelius, who is all bluster and affability here played by Alan Cox.

When first played in 1935, this is what the author wrote about the play's reception: "It had one of the most enthusiastic first nights, together with one of the best Presses, I have ever had, thanks to a very fine cast and a magnificent production by Basil Dean. I remember that some of my fellow playwrights were particularly warm in their appreciation of this piece, and yet audiences, interested but rather bewildered, never quite took to it.” It was revived in 1940 when again the audiences “never quite took to it".

In the crowded office of Messrs Briggs and Murrison, we meet the cleaner Mrs Roberts (Beverley Klein), aged loyal workhorse Mr Biddle (Col Farrell), office frump Miss Porrin (Annabel Topham), office junior Lawrence (David Shelford); also the pretty typist Judy Evison (Emily Barber) who sets everyone's heart a flutter. It is apparent from the phone calls from the bank that credit is a problem and they order a meeting of creditors, at which it is anticipated that Bob Murrison (Jamie Newall) will save the day with a string of collected orders from his recent sales trip.

In the most poignant of small scenes, a desperate and starving man (Andrew Fallaise) tries to sell typewriter ribbons and stationery sundries. He is an ex-officer and out of work in an England before the advent of the Welfare State and a reminder of just how difficult life was for those unemployed in the 1930s. Cornelius shows great compassion for this man from the officer class and gives him some money to buy food. The class divide is illustrated when another salesman, Eric Shefford (Lewis Hart), is thrown out by Cornelius who suspects he has doctored the contract and the resulting bill. However, Eric will gain something that Cornelius desires.

The first two acts, are centred around the economic predicament and the way things fall apart when Murrison returns, obviously in a very bad mental state. The final act is a curiosity as the play switches from things economic to the personal. Cornelius rejects the advances of two very different women and asks another for companionship.

Sam Yates' production is full of period atmosphere helped by David Woodhead's excellent design in recreating the cramped Holborn office and 1930s authentic costumes. The ensemble performances call for many actors to double up in roles and it is true that we are left musing on the whimsical central character of Jim Cornelius as he contemplates an emptied office and thinks about the end of his old partner Bob Murrison.

1935 is a time of great political upheaval in Europe in response to the economic situation but Priestley here concentrates on the effect this has on the individual — a man used to being resourceful finding himself adrift.
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©Copyright 2013, Elyse Sommer.
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