Priestley is one of the few 20th Century playwrights not to have been troubled much by the vagaries of fashion. As a result, plays such as An Inspector Calls and When We Are Married have enjoyed fairly consistent revivals over the decades. Eden End has been less well served.
Northampton artistic director Laurie Sansom – something of a Priestley aficionado – aims to put this right with an elegant, meticulous production in the intimate and appropriate auditorium of the Royal Theatre.
Whether the material stands up to the careful scrutiny offered by Sansom and his cast and crew may be a moot point: it’s certainly not of the same stature as the big names, and there’s a definite sense of ‘So what?’ after the final curtain.
But along the way, there are some strong performances in the telling of the story, which revolves around the return to the Yorkshire family home in 1912 of prodigal daughter Stella, who’s been away for eight years touring the world in the somewhat shocking guise, for the time, of an actress.
Stella’s secret, unveiled midway through the first half, and the reactions of various family members and hangers-on, threaten to derail the fragile harmony and optimism at Eden End, with echoes of the impending First World War looming over this false post-Edwardian spring.
Staged on an inclined oval of performance area in the middle of a black space, and with an intriguing backdrop of suspended lightbulbs and occasionally silhouetted windows, the production (designed by Sara Perks) looks deceptively sumptuous and benefits too from some judicious lighting by Anna Watson.
Daniel Betts is a tour de force as the cheeky chappie actor Charlie Appleby, whose arrival at Eden End is the catalyst for much of the soul-searching that follows, while Nick Hendrix is all youthful vigour and wide-eyed innocence as Wilfred, the 24-year-old son of the family.
Daisy Douglas does suppressed anger and jealousy with beautiful control as the dowdy middle sister Lilian, while Charlotte Emmerson’s Stella is permanently agitated and breathless, suffering a little from one-note limitation as a result.
It’s not going to set the world alight as a rediscovered masterpiece, in the way that Stephen Daldry’s 1992 Inspector Calls did, but as a worthy example of a lesser backwater of Priestley’s oeuvre, it has plenty to recommend it.