The Rose and Crown presents an enticing prospect: an opportunity to see a rarely-performed script by the much-loved author of An Inspector Calls, JB Priestley. Unfortunately, it turns out that it’s rarely performed for a reason.
The plodding opening sees a series of customers arriving in the eponymous Rose and Crown pub. They’re given to complaining – and when they take it in turns to remark that they don’t think life’s worth living any more, you don’t need supernatural powers of foresight to guess what’s about to go down. Sure enough, a stranger dressed like an undertaker soon appears, forcing the crowd of regulars to make a fateful and almost impossible decision. A brief and unconvincing burst of conflict later, and the question is suddenly and unexpectedly resolved; the stranger delivers Priestley’s rather trite moral, and after just 35 minutes on the stage, the play duly ends.
This all makes more sense when you know that The Rose and Crown was originally written for TV – the early days of TV, at that. The constraints of technology must have influenced the script, and you can hardly expect a classic from an author who’s still getting to grips with a new form. As a stage play, though, it’s horribly low on dynamism, despite some very convincing performances from a clearly capable cast (Oliver Cookson stood out particularly to me as the quietly overbearing small businessman). It’s all too convincing, perhaps; the tone is naturalistic, when something more imaginative and stylised might have helped drive the extended scene-setting along.
As you’d expect from JB Priestley, there’s a creepiness to the developing events, and Oliver Trotter’s detached performance as the mysterious stranger brings a nice sense of other-worldliness to the stage. There’s a well-worked jump scare as well – but overall, the cast are struggling with a script that shows its hand too early. Once the visitor’s purpose is revealed, the suspense becomes a busted flush, and the dialogue adopts a more overtly combative tone. But the production doesn’t quite achieve that transition, and the second half doesn’t develop the intensity you might expect.
Credit’s due for the intelligent use of a fairly difficult space, which sees the audience arranged around three sides; director Martin Foreman has wisely accepted that nobody will see everything, thereby ensuring that everyone can see something. For a script that talks a lot about specific beverages, the prop drinks are markedly unconvincing, and the device of reaching through a curtain to receive the glasses seemed outright odd to me. But on the plus side, the set and costumes are thoroughly grounded in the play’s post-war milieu – a setting that’s effectively and rapidly established with an opening audio montage.
All in all, this is a creditable production, but the script isn’t the lost masterpiece you might have hoped it would be. Still, the acting and direction show potential, and I’ll happily see Arbery Productions again next time round.