Dangerous Corner – Peter Lavelle brings JB Priestly into the future. (Theatre Review)
The key to J.B. Priestly’s Dangerous Corner lies not in its narrative or its very interesting and convoluted plot, but in the opening and closing scenes of the play. Time here is crucial to the plots development; Priestly made a series of ‘time plays’ and Dangerous Corner is one of them. However, time is also essential to the cracking open, and in turn maintaining of, the societal facade Priestly presents in Dangerous Corner.
Throughout the play, the twists and turns that unearth another dark secret that will devastate each member of the cast, all depend on a series of events that rely on the turn of a card, and the precise timing of some event that will expose it. Usually this is an eye-witness ‘accidently’ being in the wrong place at the wrong time making them a co-conspirator in the secrets that surround the dead Martin Caplan. In this way, Priestly is discussing chance, and making the point that the upper middle class facade he so despised, is held together by time and chance, as well as (of course) the inability of anyone to live up to its adopted position of perfection without a moral code at its core.
The basic plot of Dangerous Corner is that seven characters are gathered at the home of Robert Caplan to have a relaxed and pleasurable weekend. The seven are bonded by family or business ties. As Freda Caplan (Roberts wife) offers Olwen Peel (a close friend) a cigarette, Olwen makes a throw away remark that she has seen the box before. Freda, who is in possession of the box because she took it from her deceased brother-in-laws house the night he died, knows it is impossible that Olwen has seen the box, because Freda, in love with her Brother-in-law, had given it to him only hours before he died. And therefore, naturally, Freda becomes interested in how Olwen could have seen the box and what she was doing with Martin just before he died. As each character is forced through exposure by someone who is guilty, but innocent of their section of the story, to reveal their secrets, the facade of the happy , cheerful group is destroyed as are the lives of those in the room. The play then ends with the exact same moment Freda offered Olwen the cigarette, only this time, Olwen’s comment is drowned out, Freda misses it, and the night continues to mask the deadly secrets we now know each character hides.
This is Priestly’s point, that the facade is not only about what we are revealing (that is what we wish were true about ourselves) but also what we are concealing. With a particular tilt of a cigarette box, a string of discussions and questions reveals not just affairs, thefts and counter-affairs, but unrequited loves, homosexuality and drug abuse. Priestley’s intention is for us to see the precarious nature of middle class safety, and the way that each individual fits in to an overlaying narrative that is the very essence of the upper middle class. That the narrative is kept in place by the very behavior that would also destroy it. This narrative, or story of what a respectable upper class should be is a lie (of course) but because of the nature of each others hidden falls from grace, it is a secret lie, with each individual doing more to uphold its image depending on how far they are from it in reality. Priestley’s cry is that the truth belongs to no one, and therefore it is no one’s friend. Priestly brings all of this delightfully to the fore in a very funny circular sweep of a play that dissolves and obliterates each individuals life as slowly they are forced through the domino effect to reveal the deepest and most ugly secrets of their recent past.
However, the play is still very much a product of its era, so Peter Lavelle and the production team bring it into a stylized kind of present, maintaining Priestley’s fine words, but directing the cast in a more contemporary and upbeat sort of a way. This elevates the play from the corny aspects that created riveting melodrama in its day, but have not lasted the test of time. This coupled with a spicy art-nouveau meets art-deco set and costuming, transforms the seriousness of the melodrama into a time capsule of sorts, transporting the audience back with the cast so that we feel free to laugh and enjoy but are not tainted by an unfashionable yesteryear.
This is so successful that the more important and timeless aspects of Priestly’s words are held aloft and cared for by Lavelle, while the dated styles of the narrative become an important part of the play’s comic tone. This speaks to the cleverness of Priestley’s words, but also to the intimate interpretation Lavelle and his excellent cast provide as they enjoy overplaying aspects of their role while maintaining a firm grasp on the humanity of each character, something that could have been lost in the time laden translation.
Given the importance of time in the play, the attention placed on time in history is even more potent – I wish Priestly could see this version, because he became less satisfied with Dangerous Corner as he traveled further away from it in time, Lavelle turns it into something with punch that smacks of a great night at the theater. Elinor Portch and Tom Massey are excellent as Robert and Freda Caplan, the troubled hosts, trying to keep a dinner party going, deal with unsolved mysteries and face the fact their marriage is falling apart. Amy Fisher and John Willis-Richards as Gordon and Betty Whitehouse are engagingly convincing as the young couple caught up in the web and mess of the world they find themselves trapped in, adding splendid comedy and gravitas as their terrible secrets are revealed. John Grinston is down to earth as the wily and crafty Charles Trevor Stanton, one of the plays more ludicrous characters due to the date the play was written. He slides effortlessly between the audiences laughter and his own slippery observations of the people he so secretly despises. Kirsty Jordan is a fun Maud Mockridge, but the stand out is the wonderful Elizabeth MacGregor as Olwen, sliding around with her knowledge dressed in a black like a warm-hearted spider or a loyal cat. She will be the only one to make it out unscathed and yet her own secrets have caught up with her. MacGregor paints an intelligent Olwen for us, at times looking like a chess master in her ability to leave us with the impression still, at the end, that there is more to Olwen that meets the eye.
Couple this strong cast with Peter Hensen’s detailed costumes and the crews impeccable light and set design and you have a wonderful night at the Theater.
Dangerous Corner is playing at the Genesian theatre. You can get your tickets here.
All images courtesy of Craig O Regan