Written for Ralph Richardson immediately following the actor’s success in Eden End, J.B Priestley’s play Cornelius debuted in the West End in 1935. Admired by critics but failing to find much favour with audiences, it’s rarely been staged since. The reasons for this are rather baffling for, despite occasional creaks and contrivances, Priestley’s play is, overall, a most delightful thing: a touching, funny, vivid snapshot of office life between the wars. Sam Yates’s perfectly pitched, ideally cast and neatly designed production at the Finborough – the first London staging in seventy (count ‘em!) years – makes a thoroughly convincing case for this neglected play, and sensitively conveys its sadnesses, its humour and its hopes.
The temptation to excavate plays from the past that can seem to reflect (however tenuously) on the current financial crisis has proved difficult to resist for many theatre directors, and Cornelius may initially appear to be the Finborough’s attempt to jump on that particularly crowded bandwagon. The drama unfolds in the Holborn office of a failing import firm run by Jim Cornelius and his (currently absent) partner Robert Murrison. The latter, it emerges, is in the middle of a pretty serious mental breakdown, but Cornelius himself remains outwardly sanguine, even as his doubts about the business world and the direction of his life sometimes surface.
Priestley’s play thus anatomises Big Themes – capitalism, business and their relation to human fulfilment - but it does so with a light, welcoming touch and a focus on the intimate dilemmas of its protagonists. A broader social picture certainly emerges – notably in a superb scene featuring Andrew Fallaize as an ex-Air Force officer, impoverished and reduced to flogging office stationary to earn a crust, and in Cornelius’ critical address to the company’s creditors. But what resonates the most are the personal concerns of the characters as they play out the mini-drama of daily office life, with its routines, jealousies, flirtations and moments of sympathetic connection.
Now bursting into buoyancy, now plunging into reflectiveness, a dynamic Alan Cox makes the role devised for Ralph Richardson entirely his own, brilliantly communicating both Cornelius’ sense of regret and wasted potential and the restless, eccentric, imaginative spirit that the grind of office-dom has not entirely managed to quell. The actor’s star turn is complemented by fine performances across the board, several of which manage to redeem Priestley’s occasionally clichéd characterisation. The always-cherishable Beverley Klein is striking in two roles: first, as the firm’s salt-of-the-earth cleaner ,and then as the niece of the firm’s landlord, who breezes into a creditors meeting in search of amusement (!) and then flees when the conference goes horribly awry. Col Farrell twitters endearingly as Biddle, the company’s cashier, a man so convinced that life has nothing much more to offer that he’s taken to organising his own cremation. The Audrey-Tautou-evoking Emily Barber brings exceptional candour to her role as the fragrant new typist who succeeds in stirring Cornelius’s romantic interest. And as the prim, lovelorn Miss Porrin, nursing a major crush on her employer, Annabel Topham fleshes out a caricature with real depth of emotion, culminating in a heart-rending moment of rejection near the end.
Indeed, with its farewells and declarations, its sense of hopes raised and unceremoniously dashed, of opportunities missed and life moving on, there’s a distinctly Chekovian flavour to the final act of Cornelius, which is infused with Priestley’s alertness to what a character in Eden End called "the way circumstances and time can change and hurt us". A final redemptive flourish feels honest and earned, however, a testament to the humanity of the playwright's vision, which Yates’s radiant revival so beautifully brings forth.