Work schedules forced Patrick Stewart to leave British stages in the late 1980s, as a respected and admired actor capable of bestowing a satisfying heft to a role. He has returned of late a major star and possibly the most famous baldie on the planet after his stint as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but with the weight of his reputation undiminished, as Star Trek: The Next Generation had brought a far more mature approach to personal narrative themes than its predecessor, and indeed than much mainstream TV drama.
How frustrating it is, then, to see such an actor so constantly denied a fingerhold as Stewart is in Jude Kelly's West Yorkshire Playhouse production of J.B. Priestley's Johnson Over Jordan. Priestley's portrayal of an ordinary, good-bad man's arrival in the afterlife, his confrontations with his weaknesses and recollections of his life's joys, was a resounding flop on its 1939 premiere. Dramaturg Paul Taylor's notes on the play speak of Priestley and his director "making a false equation between largeness of theme and scale of production" and of a "general sense of overkill". Lo and behold, Kelly does likewise for the first hour of this 95-minute evening, deploying all kinds of bells and whistles from a gradually collapsing Roger Waters-style wall the breadth and height of the stage to an ethereal insurance clerk with a megaphone, a hellish cabaret and two treated grand pianos accompanying the action.
I have often heard Kelly spoken of, usually in connection with the succession at the Royal National Theatre, as a brilliantly inspired producer but a dangerously erratic director. I have long shied away from endorsing this view, but it becomes harder to resist in the face of such events as this folie de grandeur. Kelly has remarked that she "wasn't entering into [this production] in order to do a great revival", and indeed the stage effects, the high-speed rushing around, the general urge to be seen to be doing something, testify less to her respect for Priestley's dramatic risk-taking in tackling such a subject than to her lack of trust in the script as offering sufficient drama.
Whilst it is helpful to have monetary values updated to a contemporary scale, the insertion of references to the Third Way, cybervigilantism and the common currency just bespeak a hunger to be modish. Likewise the coy conceptual joke when Johnson says to his mysterious guide, "You look like... and yet not so like..." (itself a departure from the published text): he is referring to the Figure's general resemblance to many old friends, but we know that Stewart is referring to himself, since the Figure is played by his son Daniel.
Amid all this brouhaha in a Kafkaesque insurance company and an infernal nightclub, Johnson is called upon to do little more than respond to his surroundings: Stewart has no chance to do anything other than be frantically bewildered. Only in the final half-hour or so – the sequence which most nearly corresponds to the usual point of comparison, It's A Wonderful Life, as Johnson meets actual figures from his past and recalls his earthly happinesses – does Kelly allow the pace to subside into a thankfully reflective mood, giving the actors time to draw breath and consider actual characterisation. But oh, what a long time this episode has been coming: far too long to be worth it in the end.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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