Sunday, 10 March 2013

Theatre review: Laburnum Grove

After scoring a hit with Cornelius last year, the Finborough delves into J.B. Priestley's less-performed work again, although 1933's Laburnum Grove only gets the alternate treatment, running Sundays to Tuesdays. Suburbia had really started to come into existence between the wars, and despite the state of the economy some middle-class families were doing quite well for themselves and settling into comfortable neighbourhoods. One such family are the Radferns, led by the solid, dull George (Robert Goodale) and brisk Dorothy (Karen Askoe.) George always seems to have cash to spare, so Dorothy's sister Lucy and her husband Bernard (Lynette Edwards and Timothy Speyer) are frequent visitors. On one Sunday evening, Bernard asks for yet another loan, on the same night that George's daughter Elsie (Georgia Maguire) brings a young man home.

But Harold (Edward Hancock) isn't just there to ask for Elsie's hand in marriage; he's got a used car business that could do with an injection of capital. With everyone wanting a piece of George's fortune, he decides to tell them where it comes from: If it seems like the most boring man in Laburnum Grove has a licence to print money, that's exactly what he's been doing.

Priestley's play is certainly the gentle sort of comedy, and Oscar Toeman's production really takes its time getting started. But after half an hour of setting up the characters, George's matter-of-fact announcement of his secret life kicks things up a gear and leads to a lot of fun moments. By far the funniest sequence in the play comes early in the final act, as there's a brilliantly-constructed sequence where Harold returns and is faced with an endless back-and-forth over whether his prospective father-in-law's confession was genuine or not. And as has been known to happen in Priestley, an inspector (Simon Rhodes) calls and a number of plans start to unravel.

Laburnum Grove was last seen in the West End in 1977, and I'm not convinced it would fare too well there now. In my experience, unless they're reinvented like Stephen Daldry's An Inspector Calls, Priestley's plays tend to feel a bit stuffy and outdated in a large theatre. Even in the intimate environment of the Finborough there are patches where Laburnum Grove slows almost to a halt. But when the comedy works it really works, with a few laugh-out-loud moments and a show that kept a smile on my face throughout; and Toeman's production takes advantage of the cosy period setting to punch up the moments when middle-class respectability gives way to a comically criminal underside.

Laburnum Grove by J.B. Priestley is booking in repertory until the 19th of March at the Finborough Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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