I Have Been Here Before at Jermyn Street Theatre
The Jermyn Street Theatre is a cosy off-West End theatre that seemingly prides itself on blowing the cobwebs off plays that have not been acquainted with the theatre-going public for quite some time. I Have Been Here Before is a deliciously obscure and offbeat entry in the oeuvre of JB Priestley, who remains chiefly identifiable for An Inspector Calls, which, due to its place on the national curriculum, has been an entry point into a certain kind of socially conscious British theatre for many schoolchildren. Director Anthony Biggs stages the play straight and with minimal fuss – a shrewd judgement as the story offers a dense enough fog for the audience to navigate.
Set in Priestley’s native Yorkshire in 1937, I Have Been Here Before focuses on the lodgers at a pub in the moors run by down-to-earth Sally Pratt (Vicky Binns) and her father Sam (Keith Parry). Inhabitants include anxious headteacher Oliver Farrant (Daniel Souter) and bickering married couple, the Ormunds – Walter (David Schaal), a self-made man with a brusque manner and a weakness for whisky, and Janet (Alexandra Dowling), a well-intentioned but frustrated young woman. The final lodger, exiled German Dr Gortler (Edward Halsted), brings the mystery quotient with his probing questions and prophetic insights into both the collective and individual souls of those around him. The English characters for the most part are hiding deep inner wounds from each other, requiring the foreign doctor to try to prevent this repression from erupting into violence. Indeed, Gortler is the conduit for Priestley to espouse a surfeit of ideas, from dissecting the withered soul of man under the class system to a metaphysical examination into the nature of time.
I Have Been Here Before is certainly a more offbeat and challenging meal to consume than An Inspector Calls: although in both plays there is both excellent dialogue and a weakness for hammering home the theme of social class through exposition. However the rougher texture of the less well-known play is actually more flavourful and less pre-packaged perhaps due to the strange focus on abstract, philosophical concepts like infinitely repeating timelines. The cast in this production all excel in capturing the bygone period mannerisms while still seeming like flesh-and-blood characters, but the standout has to be Schaal, a real force to be reckoned with his perfect balancing of bluster and vulnerability. Overall the play may seem dated at points and some of the more didactic speechifying is hard to digest, but the performers and team have done a very commendable job of not getting submerged in all this text, and so from this modest setting emerges a very engaging and enjoyable piece of theatre that few living people will have ever seen performed before.
Photos: Scott Rylander
I Have Been Here Before is on at Jermyn Street Theare from 3rd until 21st May 2016, for further information or to book visit here.