By J. B. Priestley Directed by Michael Attenborough Presented by Bill Kenwright at the Richmond Theatre on 29 September 2014
All seems well at the Caplan’s independent publishing house until a can of worms is unceremoniously ripped open at Robert and Freda Caplan’s dinner party. A chance remark plunges the guests into a re-examination of the mysterious events surrounding the recent death of young Martin Caplan and skeletons come crashing out of the closet in more ways than one. Life will never be the same again… or will it? Find out in this brand new production of a J. B. Priestley timeless classic.
J. B. Priestley’s first play opens with a bang and a scream, and the lights go up on a house party listening to the end of a radio play. We’re in almost the same boat as the characters on stage, who’ve missed hearing several key scenes, a state of disinformation that is apt — for this play, and for life in general.
A tremendous production with the full works: great attention to period detail in both the Art Deco set design and costumes. The characters belong to a rarefied social world but Priestley’s dialogue soon collapses the distance between them and us. Although the play begins with the women and men separated (the women, wondering what it is the men are laughing over offstage, agree that men gossip too and anyone uninterested in gossip isn’t interested in humanity), the men soon join the women and the chat turns to the radio play that’s just finished.
Someone suggests that the sleeping dog of the play’s title is the truth, which should have been left alone. Life’s got a lot of dangerous corners, if taken at speed, but what’s a life without risk? Olwen remarks, cryptically:
There’s the truth, and then there’s the truth.
Now, literary types, like priests, don’t have a very good track record when pontificating about the “truth” (see Pinter’s inane comments in Old Times), but Olwen’s nuanced line comes across as highly intriguing in performance. She goes on to describe God’s truth as the real truth, and you don’t have to be a believer to see that an omniscient being would indeed know all there is to know, and be possessed of a comprehensive set of true beliefs. Minds that actually exist, however, are finite, and are only ever in possession of a subset of the facts, half the truth (although half is putting a high ceiling on our knowledge).
Disagreements over something as apparently straightforward as the provenance of a cigarette box soon show each character’s limited perspective on the events of a particular weekend, when Robert’s brother, Martin, shot himself. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide: Martin had stolen a cheque for £500 and could not face the consequences of discovery.
“It’s perfectly simple,” says one character. “It’s not that simple,” says another. How did Olwen know about the musical cigarette box?
Robert loathes silly mysteries and just wants to get to the bottom of what happened on the day on his brother’s suicide. He wants everyone to be truthful. How hard can that be, and surely only good can flow from telling the truth? It’s not long before they’re all up to their necks in the truth, and wishing they could unlearn what they have learned, about each other, and about the past.
Stanton had started out as a junior clerk in the publishing company, but he’s now more than a match for Robert and Gordon. He points out a rather obvious fact:
You don’t think he shot himself for fun?
It seems Martin did plenty of shocking things for fun, but he wasn’t the type to kill himself. There had to be another reason. What was it? Stanton puts it bluntly to Robert:
You see what you’ve started?
The truth about what happened that Saturday is not the only thing to be slowly unpacked. It seems that no one is actually in love with the person they’re married to, but in love with someone else, and even then the feelings are not always requited, or even recognized. [Spoiler alert] After Freda has revealed her own affair with Martin, Gordon reveals that Martin couldn’t stand women, let alone Freda. Olwen (I think) laconically observes:
This is our night for telling the truth.
There’s a fabulous cliffhanger revelation just before the interval, which is picked up immediately afterwards, as Olwen gives her version of events and promises:
I’ll tell the complete truth.