It was not entirely by accident that I got to learn of the Park Theatre’s excellent production of The Roundabout but it might have been. It was reviewed in The Spectator on Thursday morning (a very favourable review) and fortunately we had a Friday evening to spare so I bought the tickets immediately. It might be that it had been publicised elsewhere but in my fairly broad cultural reading (broadsheet paper, the usual BBC output, billboards/flyers, Twitter) I hadn’t heard about it even though the theatre’s on my doorstep. So first of all I’m grateful to Lloyd Evans for giving it a publicity push.
In my case he was pushing at an open door. Previous to a couple of years ago I kind of vaguely knew who JB Priestley was without having ever read or seen anything he’d written. Not even An Inspector Calls! (Which I still haven’t seen.) Having a friend who writes on the 1930s and then having to teach on the home front in the Second World War soon put paid to that.
From my teaching on the War I came to realise that Priestley was just as important a political writer in his own way as was George Orwell. And I suspect a lot more widely read by the public. But this post isn’t to talk about the relative impact of Priestley and Orwell on public opinion home and abroad during the Blitz. Rather it’s to talk (briefly) about Priestley’s novels and to ask someone to do something.
My friend John recommended that if I wanted to read anything by Priestley I should start with The Good Companions. The GC is a road novel about a working man from Bruddersford (a lightly fictionalised Bradford) and his adventures on the road with a band of artistes putting on a travelling cabaret in depression-era England. It’s a baggy old beast packed full with sentimentality, harder than you expect reportage, rounded characters, good humour and unlikely meetings. Think if Evelyn Waugh had the itinerary of Orwell and the good nature of Eric Morecombe. Or something like that. It’s a middle-brow classic. That isn’t a put down.
This was followed up by Angel Pavement, which should have been more up my street since it’s set in London. I liked it but not as much as the Companions. While the latter has benevolence in every page even when at its most bleak Pavement, for all its wonderful description of London in the 30s, feels a far more angry book. It feels that Priestley the northerner has come to despise somewhat what he sees as the harder attitudes of the south, a view that I don’t entirely share with him. And the pay off is far too easy to see from early on in the narrative. But I’d still recommend it for a description of a City of London – one of hard-pushed clerks, travelling furniture salesmen and a working port all mingled together – that hasn’t existed for many a year.
Talking over the Good Companions with a playwright friend after watching The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny I mentioned that I thought it would make a far more effective piece of musical theatre than Brecht and Weill’s overwrought sledgehammer of an allegory. ‘But it’s been done!’ he replied. And at the time I thought, ‘Well that’s interesting I must look it up.’ The major problem it seemed to me would be to write music as good in reality as it is portrayed to be in the book, especially Inigo Jollifant’s smash hit Slippin’ Round the Corner. But then I left it to one side after a search on YouTube and Spotify didn’t turn up any version of a production or the numbers within it.
The Roundabout reminded me of that conversation and I looked up the musical version of The Good Companions. With lyrics by Johnny Mercer and music by André Previn it does seem to have some pedigree but I don’t remember it ever being on in London. So my hope is that if the Park’s run of Priestley is successful it might encourage someone, the Park themselves perhaps, to put on the musical. Or it’s a chunky enough number for the National I would think; and with its narrative of north and south, rich and poor, individuals and teams in an era of austerity it would surely have some resonance today.
Just as The Roundabout does. So in anticipation of a Priestley musical do go to the Park to see The Roundabout, it’s worth the trip wherever you are in London.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).