J.B. Priestley's "time" play of 1937 is based upon an idea propounded by the mystic P.D. Ouspensky, that the individual soul achieves progress or suffers degeneration not through living a succession of lives, but through living the same life a number of times over – a sort of Groundhog Cosmology. In I Have Been Here Before, the mysterious incomer, that Priestley staple – here, the rumpled, abrasive Dr Görtler – turns out to be able to remember events from his last time around, and to have come to this inn on the Yorkshire Moors on this Whitsuntide weekend to prevent the unhappily married Ormunds and uneasy young schoolmaster Farrant from doing something they have already regretted in several previous cycles of existence. If you see what I mean.
The play is so well-made that one would want to turn it over and look for the maker's little siglum on its underside, if the character of the plot were not such that one can see the name in question running all the way through it in big pink letters. Priestley used some of the same ingredients – a knot of interconnected people, an inexorable chain of events recounted by a stranger, the chance to avert those events before they happen – to much greater effect a decade later in An Inspector Calls.
Marianne Elliott's production pays serious attention to the play, but cannot dispel the audience's sense of quaintness at what goes on before them: David Horovitch's implausibly-accented Herr Doktor Görtler, Jenna Russell's oh-so-earnest Janet Ormund and Jonathan Weir's edgy, nervously exhausted (and a little exhausting) Farrant strike us almost as artefacts rather than characters. George Costigan stands a little aside from this clutch of performances; true, Walter Ormund is given a little more self-knowledge and a greater questioning spirit – the tools with which he might transcend his vouchsafed destiny – but even in Ormund's earlier manifestation Costigan brings a distinctive grim compulsion to a figure who would otherwise be an off-the-shelf bluff Northern industrialist stereotype.
Stephen Daldry's landmark production of An Inspector Calls ushered in a re-appraisal of Priestley's more ethereal works; even Theatr Clwyd's production of The Long Mirror several months ago revealed a thoughtful dramatic vehicle for a mystical concept (that of astral travelling). However, I Have Been Here Before invites the obvious response: so have we. It is, unfortunately, a play out of time.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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