Theatr Clwyd is currently hopeful of weathering the funding tempest precipitated by the imminent Welsh local government reorganisation; the prospect of closure at the end of June, although not yet eliminated, has receded somewhat. This is welcome news, as the unofficial national theatre of Wales is a venue of such high calibre that, even lacking an artistic director as it currently does (due in part to the same problems), it can produce refreshing surprises.
J.B. Priestley's The Long Mirror was written in 1940, and has not been professionally staged in Britain since a Royal Court run in 1952. It is easy to see why the piece has not appealed to generations at odds with the notion of the well-made play, still more so as it is grounded in an acceptance of supernatural phenomena – in this case, astral travelling. But Priestley was too acute a writer to take a straightforward line either of evangelism or debunking. When Branwen Elder begins to recount her intimate knowledge of the life of composer Michael Camber, it is plain that no-one is more disquieted than she by the years of visions over which she has had no control or choice.
Juliet Aubrey ably conveys Branwen's unease at having come to know a man as well as he knows himself, yet without ever meeting him; she is a world away from Madam Arcati. However, it is a gruelling role in which all emotions are secondary to Branwen's peculiar state, and by the third and final act Aubrey begins to flag a little. The quality of the writing also diminishes, so that she still has a better time of it than Peter Firth's Camber, called upon as he is to subside into a string of "Yes, you're right, I see now" utterances.
Firth's return to the stage is an accomplished one, marred only when the script momentarily lets him down. His Camber is a man who has never known quite what he wants in order to satisfy his artistic and personal needs, given to unleashing "the murderous black dog" of his fearsome temper at the slightest provocation. The composer's mystified journey from disbelieving outrage to wholehearted dependence upon Branwen is laid out skilfully and organically by Firth, who emerges from his third-act quagmire by forging a synthesis of old and new Camber in his closing scene.
Director Marina Caldarone resists the temptation to go for an expressionistic production such as Daldry and MacNeil's An Inspector Calls; the drawing-room set of a North Welsh private hotel is entirely naturalistic, with only a looming hillscape visible on the rear cyclorama. The Mold audience, too, relishes the play's tongue-in-cheek references to Celtic witchcraft, although occasionally a little nonplussed by the main subject matter. That the kind of mysticism which would be easily acceptable in late Strindberg is for some reason harder to swallow in a twentieth-century British setting, and that we find the play's altruistic ending rather alien also, is our fault, not Priestley's. His craft is such that he painstakingly gives every other figure – Rebecca Johnson as Camber's semi-estranged wife, Sheila Reid as the hotel's sole other, motherly guest and a scene-stealing David Lloyd Meredith as the establishment's general factotum – similar shafts of intuition, however trivial, which echo Branwen and Camber's central experiences.
Finely fashioned and entertaining plays with both a heart and a head have never been so common that they can comfortably be dismissed; plays with what must be called a soul into the bargain are rare indeed. The Long Mirror is something of an oddity in this day and age, but quite a fascinating one.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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