Laburnum Grove, first performed in 1933, predates the better known An Inspector Calls by 12 years, and the earlier play can be seen as JB Priestley's first foray into the dark side of the suburban, self-made middle-class.
True, there are hints in the even earlier Dangerous Corner, but it is in the quiet and eminently respectable community of Laburnum Grove, in the North London suburb of Shooters Green, that Priestley first dissects the greed, selfishness and immorality of those who take pride in being model citizens.
Shock waves are sent through the Radfern family by the revelation that the mild-mannered, tomato-growing paterfamilias, George, has in fact been part of an international gang of forgers for the last four years, and that they have all been living very handsomely on the fruits of his crime.
The ingratiating in-laws, down on their luck and desperate to tap George for another loan, reel in horror. The daughter's fiancé, Harold, also hoping to borrow money to start a used car business, flees in disgust.
Could this simply be a ploy by a canny George to get rid of the spongers? Or is it a double-bluff? A modern audience isn't fooled for too long, and the play creaks along in a very amiable style, offering some enjoyable shafts of come-uppance against the in-laws, and some astute observations on the shallowness and hypocrisy which lurk inside us all. But to be honest, these are pretty easy targets, and the play doesn't have half the savage bite of An Inspector Calls or indeed half of its dramatic skill.
Lynette Edwards has just the right amount of icy disdain as the sister-in-law and Timothy Speyer blusters to good effect as her husband, the 'man of the world, who has actually seen the world'. Karen Ascoe and Georgia Maguire share the moral heart of the drama, as the wife and daughter respectively, embodying pureness of heart and loyalty with two admirably unfussy performances.
As George, Robert Goodale is charmingly self-effacing and inscrutable, with a constant half-smile that suggests both innocence and deviousness at the same time, but lacks the dramatic energy and the focus necessary to drive the play along. As a consequence it meanders, and becomes somewhat baggy in the middle act.
There are many moments to savour in this worthy revival by Oscar Toeman, but this is very early and less than top-form Priestley.
- Giles Cole