Rarely before has a series of plays been so hyped, nor so eagerly anticipated, as the JB Priestley season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This all started months ago. And never has this theatre had such a buzz about it on entering the doors.
So, where to start in the re-evaluation of Priestley's collection of work? The ever-popular An Inspector Calls? No. In a moment of what would appear to be sheer madness, the work chosen to kick off the season by director Jude Kelly and her "Priestley: The Next Generation" cohort Patrick Stewart is what was, in its day, Priestley's most ill-received play.
Miraculously, Johnson Over Jordan, considered by contemporaries to be the writer's most spectacular flop, has been turned today into the most spectacular of productions.
As the audience enters the auditorium, there lies Stewart, as Robert Johnson, atop his deathbed, his family gathered to say their fond farewells. Then, as the video projection (designed by Mic Pool, with lighting Chris Davey) illustrates the popping of clogs, Johnson leaps into the afterlife. The play also leaps into life as Johnson begins an extremely vivid and posthumous look back at the events that led to his present circumstances, aided by video, photographs, friends, family, fictional characters, Rae Smith's design and the plinky, plonky live piano of composer Sarah Collins and Emma Garner.
The depth of Priestley's expressionistic writing and the unpredictable mix of realism and fantasy by Kelly and co result in a real headswim of a work. This is Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (characters burst through a huge polystyrene backdrop), this is Joe Orton at his filthy best, meeting Alan Bennett (references to Lancashire are omitted in favour of more popular Yorkshire ones) in a seedy bar and night-club littered with socio-freaks and possibly owned by German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It is both abstract and real, heaven and hell, funny and moving, Orwellian and Huxleyan, life on earth and life on stage.
Johnson Over Jordanworks in the most stylish manner and Kelly was right to return to a play that has not been performed for 50 years. Kelly, Stewart and the other nine cast members do Priestley an enormous service here.
I laughed and I was also, genuinely, moved to tears. As Stewart headed off on his long walk into the shadows of the valley of death, I wanted to kiss him.
- reviewed by Dave Windass