Review: Eden End (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until July 2)

A RETURN of the prodigal tale which could all too easily be a clunky plodder of a period piece out of its time is given electrifying new life in a new touring production from the always capable hands of the English Touring Theatre with the Royal and Derngate, Northampton.

J.B.Priestley’s near-Chekhovian Northern family drama Eden End was written in 1934, but set in 1912 on the peaceful cusp of world war in an age of Edwardian innocence. Actress Stella Kirby (a performance of awe-inspiring depth and angst-ridden thwarted ambition from Charlotte Emmerson) returns home after eight wasted years of trying to make a success on stage only to find a once respectable family crumbling apart through argument, bitterness, and emptiness. Home is indeed where the heartache is.

Although an early Priestly play, it has a familiar underlying theme, populated by characters who do not regret things they have not done but the things they have done and who realise they have been formed by those decisions.

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You can cut the rivalry between Stella and her jealous sister, Lilian (a dark and despairing Daisy Douglas) with a knife, but there is no fatted calf awaiting the return of this prodigal daughter after her stab at fame – just a tatty old costume she once wore to perform as a child discovered by housemaid Sarah (a lovely performance by Carol Macready), a tired father (William Chubb) more interested in studying birds than continuing his work as a country GP, and ex-admirer farmer Geoffrey (a performance of sad resignation by the wickedly under-rated Jonathan Firth).

Director Laurie Sansom has certainly spiced things up in the play, not least with a memorable music hall turn (the song and dance number I Want to be a Military Man from the Edwardian musical hit Florodora, which was a hit at this very theatre in the same period) from Stella’s estranged husband Charles (a spirited performance from Daniel Betts) and her younger brother Wilfred (a fantastic Nick Hendrix making his professional stage debut with astounding energy and maturity, and a definite name to watch in the future), leading to an hilarious frank, drunken midnight discussion.

In picking up on the writer’s own fondness for the play, Sansom has allowed the piece to blossom afresh and with such a strong cast its charm and ability to touch a contemporary nerve remains and the whole never once ceases to sparkle.

David Guest