Sunday, 15 September 2013

Theatre review: Summer Day's Dream

We open on a rustic scene, two old men who look like they work with their hands dozing in a farmhouse. What looks like a Victorian rural setup isn't the past though but the future - or at least the future from the perspective of 1949, when Summer Day's Dream premiered. J.B. Priestley's play takes place in the post-apocalyptic England of 1975, Britain having been worst affected by the Third World War, which ended with an atomic bomb sending the island back to pre-industrial times. A couple of decades on and the country has found a new life as an agricultural society with a mostly barter-based economy. In the old order Stephen Dawlish (Kevin Colson) was a wealthy factory-owner, but now the 80-year-old's country mansion is a farmhouse, and he and his family happily work the land, exchange goods for what they need, and entertain themselves in the evening with music, poetry and amateur dramatics.

The rest of the world's progress hasn't slowed though, and it intrudes on the Dawlishes' idyll in the form of three representatives of the new World Order: Indian scientist Dr Bahru (Peter Singh) is there to do a report on local mineral reserves; if the report is favourable, American businessman Franklyn Heimer (Patrick Poletti) will recommend his company mine the area to make their Synthetic Products; and Russian official Madame Shestova (Helen Keeley) will make sure the USSR gets the percentage of the profits promised them in the peace treaty.

Since the success of last year's Cornelius the Finborough have kept returning to the lesser-performed works of J.B. Priestley, and this one has been away from the stage for over 60 years (although it did get a TV adaptation in the 1990s.) It's a rather sweet play but it's hardly Priestley's subtlest effort, which may explain its lack of popularity. Not that it's hard to sympathise with the writer's post-War anger and frustration at the damage unchecked scientific advances can do on a day-to-day basis, let alone when used for weaponry. But there's a naïveté to the rural idyll he paints, and a sometimes preachy tone - fortunately Stephen is Priestley's usual mouthpiece, and Colson's mellifluous tones soften the lecturing.

And in other areas there's some clever ideas to Summer Day's Dream, like the reversal of stereotypes when Bahru is confronted by Margaret (Lisa Armytage,) Stephen's quasi-mystical daughter in law, the Indian representing unchecked "progress" in the name of science that could destroy a simple society, the Englishwoman becoming the face of homespun local wisdom. The twist must have felt especially ironic at the play's debut when England's lost days of Empire were a recent memory. All three visitors find someone to teach them what really matters in life, with Stephen's grandchildren taking on the other two - the American is captivated by Eleanor Yates' Rosalie and finds himself trying not to disappoint her. Meanwhile the most intense relationship comes when Shestova falls for the puppyish charm of Christopher (Tom Grace.)

The venue's resident designer Alex Marker puts his directing hat on for this production and brings out the charm and optimism in Priestley's vision of a utopia born out of catastrophe, as well as the sadness of Christopher's doomed relationship with the married Soviet official. Like the title, the play itself makes reference to A Midsummer Night's Dream but its status as wish-fulfillment fantasy is sometimes cloying. Not a lost masterpiece, but a piece whose positives have been brought into focus by a bright and amiable production.

Summer Day's Dream by J.B. Priestley is booking in repertory until the 24th of September at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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