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The Roundabout

Rediscovered 1932 drawing-room comedy by J.B. Priestley turns out to be a Depression Era update on Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” with basically the same characters.

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Steven Blakeley and Emily Laing in a scene from J.B. Priestley’s “The Roundabout” (Carol Rosegg)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]As part of the 2017 Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, The Roundabout, a forgotten J.B. Priestley play from 1932 is having its U.S. premiere courtesy of Cahoots Theatre Company in association with The Other Cheek and Park Theatre. British novelist, essayist and playwright Priestley is now most famous for his Time Plays (Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner, I Have Been Here Before, An Inspector Calls, etc.) in which he experimented with concepts of time. Ironically, The Roundabout turns out to be a drawing-room comedy instead in the style of Maugham, Lonsdale or Coward but with a bit more political content.

Even stranger, it is really a 1930’s rewrite of Shaw’s pre-W.W. I comedy Heartbreak House reset at the beginning of the Great Depression with versions of all the same characters. Former business tycoon meets confirmed Communists and all takes place at a beautiful country house weekend. It now seems rather dated and beside the point though it must have been quite novel 85 years ago when the play was first performed in Britain but failed to reach New York. Hugh Ross’ elegant and graceful production can’t disguise the fact that the play seems to be two generations late in arriving.

It is a Saturday when the wealthy entertain for the weekend at their country houses. Unfortunately, it is 1932 and Lord Kettlewell is having a very bad day. Four of the companies in which he is heavily invested are about to go belly up and he may find himself bankrupt. He also has a series of unwanted guests as he attempts to salvage his fortune: his 22-year-old daughter Pamela who was brought up by his estranged wife and he has not seen in years, now an avowed Communist, her friend Comrade Staggles, another British Communist just back from a three-month stay in Russia with Pamela, his ex-mistress Hilda Lancicourt who refuses to be dismissed by letter, Lady Knightsbridge, an impoverished widow seeking commissions or gossip to sell, and eventually his estranged wife, Lady Kettlewell, now a very successful businesswoman.

Emily Laing and Carol Starks in a scene from J.B. Priestley’s “The Roundabout” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

With Kettlewell’s friend Churton Saunders, the most charming parasite in London (as he will be the first to tell you), a guest for the weekend, and his young upper class secretary Farrington Gurney the scene is set for a series of romantic escapades as well as talk about the state of Britain as things appear to be in flux. Trying to extricate himself from his financial problem, Lord Kettlewell also finds himself attacked by both Pamela and Comrade Staggles as “a bloated capitalist” and “the representative of an antiquated crumbling system,” though both are fascinated by his lifestyle and his house.

When Pamela arrives dressed in a dirty sweater and shorts and a man’s hat, she appears to be of indeterminate sex. However, after she changes into a chic day dress and combs her long brunette hair, she is romanced by both Gurney and Staggles who also finds himself attracted to Mrs. Lancicourt and Alice, the parlor maid. Pamela it turns out is pining for artist Alec Grenside, a friend of her mother and an acquaintance of her father. She turns out to be extremely resourceful and adept at organizing and deals efficiently with both the unwanted Mrs. Lancicourt and her mother’s visit after ten years. At the end, the romantic couples are united and the interlopers are sent on their merry way.

Although the play seems to have something to say about economics and political systems, it is simply a very light romantic comedy making use of elements of change during the Great Depression. Ross’ production is quite proficient and fast-paced, but the characters are generic and we don’t learn much about them. As Lord Kettlewell, Brian Protheroe is the typical crotchety but wise aristocrat, Richenda Carey is most eccentric as the impoverished Lady Knightsbridge, and Lisa Bowerman is level-headed as the previously estranged Lady Kettlewell. Carol Starks’ Mrs. Lancicourt is the manipulative upper-class woman who attempts to dominate all situations. Hugh Sachs is a raisonneur straight out of classic drawing room comedy and would have been as at home in a play by Wilde, Shaw, Pinero or Galsworthy.

Carol Starks, Derek Hutchinson, Annie Jackson, Brian Protheroe and Richenda Carey in a scene from J.B. Priestley’s “The Roundabout” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The Communist characters are a bit different. The plucky and intrepid Pamela drives the plot, but as portrayed by Emily Laing, it is difficult to know whether she is politically motivated, over-reacting to not having known her wealthy father all these years, or rebounding from a failed love affair. As played by Steven Blakeley, his Comrade Staggles is decidedly like the proverbial bull in a china shop, and he cannot seem to make up his mind if he is working class, lower class or a political rebel. Charlie Field’s upper-class secretary Farrington Gurney is the typical pompous man about town, while Priestley adds a new wrinkle to Derek Hutchinson’s role as the unflappable and very competent butler Parsons giving him a drunken scene and a huge bit of good luck.

Described by Priestley as taking place in a “lounge-drawing room” of a country house, Polly Sullivan’s setting is bland in the manner of an indoor-outdoor room, or possibly a solarium without plants. On the other hand, Sullivan’s costumes for the upper-class characters are suitably chic, noticeably drab and grungy for the Communist characters. David Howe’s lighting design suggests that these are people who can afford to live in a blaze of light. The uncredited sound design includes appropriate period music from the 1930’s, while crediting composer Matthew Strachan for the original score.

While the American premiere of J.B. Priestley’s forgotten 1932 comedy The Roundabout has been given a polished production, it turns out to be little more than a dated drawing room comedy which attempts to comment on Britain between the wars. While the play pretends to be making a statement about British class structure and the economic and social changes that were occurring in the 1930’s, it is both very lightweight and very much a period piece of an earlier age. The repartee is good but, alas, the play is not particularly witty nor does it offer memorable one liners. From the usually brilliant J.B. Priestley we have come to expect a good deal more originality.

The Roundabout (through May 28, 2017)

2017 Brits Off Broadway Festival

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: two hour and 20 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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