Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Theatre review: Cornelius

Whenever the Finborough Theatre digs up a play that's languished in obscurity for decades and turns out to be surprisingly good, the natural reaction is to wonder how the work could have remained "lost" for so long. And perhaps the secret of their success is timing: Maybe if this play had been unearthed and staged a few years ago it would have failed to capture anyone's interest. But as with The American Clock, which came to the same theatre earlier this year, J.B. Priestley's Cornelius deals with an earlier economic crisis, and so has unfortunately taken on a relevance to the current one. Written in 1935, it follows the last few weeks in business of a small London company that's dealt in aluminium imports with some success for many decades, but now has the creditors knocking at the door.

Jim Cornelius (Alan Cox) is the junior partner, a widower who's trying to keep the office going while the senior partner is on a last-ditch trip around the country to try and drum up some business. A bundle of nervous energy, he relentlessly tries to keep the remaining employees' spirits up and juggle the tiny earnings with the unaffordable debts. 19-year-old Lawrence (David Ellis) may be frustrated at still being an office boy after five years, but there's a constant reminder of why he can't just get a job elsewhere: The endless stream of desperate, sometimes literally starving salesmen who turn up, unwanted, to try and sell everything from stationery to shaving cream, and almost always get sent away disappointed. Cornelius is certainly at times a sad story about troubling times and the end of an era but if it sounds unrelentingly bleak, it's not. Priestley's workplace drama is enlivened with interesting characters, moments of humour, a couple of unrequited romances and an unpredictability that makes it hard to categorize - as when a meeting of angry creditors goes in an altogether different direction with the arrival of the senior partner (Jamie Newall,) in the middle of a breakdown and beset by paranoia.

The cast of Sam Yates's production also contribute in a large way to it remaining engaging for most of its 2-and-a-half hour running time (there are very occasional lulls.) Cox brings the frantic highs and lows to his character (his reaction to opening a parcel and finding a book he's ordered is a highlight of the show) and is supported by a likeable Col Farrell as the company's oldest employee, a bookkeeper with an almost autistic love of numbers (though he doesn't quite manage to spot why the date of the big meeting seems significant to him - it's the Ides of March.) As Miss Porrin, the pinched secretary in love with Cornelius, Annabel Topham gives a funny and quietly moving performance. Meanwhile Beverley Klein doubles up as a salt-of-the-earth cleaning lady, and as the landlord's well-off niece, who turns up to watch the company's death-throes out of a rather callously academic interest. David Woodhead's detailed set design, aided by Howard Hudson's lighting and Ben Price's sound, also gives a very strong sense of place - I almost thought I could feel the fresh air come in when the fake window got opened. A slightly unusual but very affecting lost classic - whose modern-day relevance is apparent, but never overplayed.

Cornelius by J.B. Priestley is booking until the 8th of September at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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