Review: Eden End, Richmond Theatre, Tuesday 5 July 2011

Home sweet home, as the saying goes, but JB Priestley’s Edwardian family drama reveals it to be poignantly bittersweet. Stella Kirby, daughter of a respectable country GP, has returned unannounced to the family home after eight disillusioning years pursuing a career on the stage. She hopes to find peace and contentment in the seat of her childhood memories, but the family she left behind has changed in the intervening years and the outside world soon intrudes to complicate her quiet respite.

Director Laurie Sansom has leant a gentle touch to this very Edwardian tale, drawing out the nuances of emotion, tension and resentment in a collection of excellent performances. Charlotte Emmerson is stunning as Stella, making a suitably dramatic entrance as she whisks in like a whirlwind, revelling in the role of the returning prodigal daughter, but plumbing greater depths as the play progresses and her polished veneer cracks. Regrets soon creep in as it becomes clear that her adventures have not been as wonderful as she paints them and she wishes to return to a life that she long left behind.

Regrets and thwarted ambitions are two of the central themes in a play that examines the underlying unhappiness that haunts the lives of us all. Stella’s father, a weary and wistful William Chubb, admires his daughter’s bravery in what he sees as chasing her dreams, something he never had the courage to do in his youth, little knowing that she has not enjoyed the success he imagines for her. Daisy Douglas is also poignantly regretful and bitter in the role of Stella’s rather prim and old-fashioned younger sister, who has loyally remained at home and fears that Stella’s return will destroy all that she has so carefully built up.

The first half, while beautifully played, ambles along at a sometimes sluggish pace and it is not until after the interval that Priestley’s play really gets into its stride, as Stella’s estranged husband shatters the calm of the family home and provides the catalyst for all that follows. Daniel Betts is a hoot as Stella’s fun-loving, hapless thespian spouse, pairing up with Nick Hendrix as Stella’s little brother Wilfred, who makes an astonishing professional debut, for one of the best drunk scenes ever to grace the stage. The touches of comedy lighten the mood but are always tempered with a strain of unhappiness, as even Hendrix’s charmingly boyish Wilfred harbours doubts and regrets.

Sara Perks’ sumptuous design complements the action beautifully, with the set of the Kirbys’ living room constructed as a stage within a stage in a nice nod to Edwardian theatre that highlights Stella’s profession and asks questions about the roles we all continually play in our everyday lives. Added to the poignancy of a family struggling to fit back together is Priestley’s retrospection on the 1912 setting, poised on the edge of the most destructive war the world had ever known, lending a painful irony to Dr Kirby’s hopes for the dawning of a great new age. While this is a very domestic, very Edwardian drama, the hounds of the future are knocking on the Kirbys’ door.

Priestley’s play may not have anything particularly special or ground-breaking to say, but this muted, moving portrait of a fractured family and of flawed individuals on the desperate quest for happiness is a perfectly formed study of the human condition. Lovingly revived by Sansom in this masterful production, Eden End is a beautiful and mournful elegy to a lost age.

One Response to “Review: Eden End, Richmond Theatre, Tuesday 5 July 2011”
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  1. […] this year included Lisa Jackson in Love, Love, Love and Charlotte Emerson in the muted, poignant Eden End, but two women have deserved places at the top of the pile: Lesley Manville and Tracie […]

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