They Came to a City
Christ Church, Chelmsford
Friday 12th October 2012
Written among a gloomy wartime Britain, Priestley's characters in They Came to a City represent a cross-section of 1940s society. Thrown together - we never learn how - outside the walls of a socialist paradise, a city where Capitalism is recognised as a crime and a description of our financial system is met with disbelieving hilarity, the play centres around their individual reactions to the anticipation and then realisation of what the city has to offer.
The action never takes us inside the city, but the surrounding walls and imposing door that we do see were well made and sturdy. A step up to the wall and some simple boxes offered enough variety of levels to create some interest. Christ Church is a large space to fill, with the stage and audience distant enough to cause some problems with less projected voices, and a few quieter moments did become slightly lost. That said, the stage was used well, with no distracting blocking. Costumes were generally well chosen and helped portray the differentiation of the classes.
With a static and action less plot, the piece relies on the characterisation and portrayal of each individual and the way they interact as an ensemble, which director Angela Gee generally achieved from her cast. The pompous Lady Loxfield was played by Sharon Goodwin, with a lovely accent and sincere indignance at her daughter's betrayal, before revealing the truth of her self centred nature with an immediate switch of mood. Her optimistic daughter Phillipa was portrayed by real life daughter Shelley Goodwin, in a confident performance of upper class rebellion. Shelley needed a straighter posture, as befits Phillipa's social standing, but her speeches were delivered with feeling and maturity. Geoff Hadley gave an assertive performance as self-made businessman Cudworth, with Chris Wright more cautious but fittingly eccentric as the bumbling Sir George Gedney, both unlikely ever to buy into the offerings of the brave new world on offer through the city door. Helen Langley hobbled convincingly as Mrs Batley, the lovable old char with nothing to lose. Syd Smith and Tricia Childs as the Strittons showed the reality of their stale but comfortable marriage, their contrasting views almost stretching the relationship to breaking point, with the audience left to decide if it is love or simply habit that draws them back together. Some decide to stay, some decide to return home, but only worldly wise engineer Joe spots the potential for an evangelical growth of the paradise he sees within the city walls, convincing new love Alice along with him. Seasoned barmaid Alice had certainly been around, but Jean Speller's interpretation offered just enough innocent hope to make a believable plot in her open heart and willingness to follow Joe. It was unclear what accent Andy Millward as Joe was trying to achieve, but it was unfortunately quite distracting making his character somewhat less convincing. However his performance was composed and thoughtful, with a revolutionary passion in his final speech.
Preistley's play feels almost comically optimistic to a 2012 audience, although it's subversive content would have been radically progressive on its wartime opening. There are undoubtedly questions raised that still provoke thought and conversation, and on the whole the ensemble achieved the difficult task of retaining the necessary period of the piece while also engaging a modern audience. This was a courageous choice for Phoenix to take on, but was well worth the risk as it resulted in just about the best show I have seen them produce. Congratulations to all.