I Have Been Here Before, Jermyn Street Theatre - Review

Arguably most famous for writing An Inspector Calls, many of JB Priestley's other plays contain avant garde theories of time and the interdependence of society. I Have Been Here Before, which is currently playing at Jermyn Street Theatre, has traits in common with another Priestley classic Time And The Conways as well as An Inspector Calls, but on a downsized scale. The play begins with widow Sally Pratt (Vicky Binns) and father Sam Shipley (Keith Parry) at their Yorkshire inn they run, getting ready for their weekend guests.  A mysterious visitor, Dr Görtler (Edward Halsted) arrives, asking about a spare room and other guests there, but his enquiries prove fruitless. However cancellations at the inn lead to some other guests arriving and a spare room for the doctor...

Through Görtler's steady stream of questions we ascertain that Janet and Walter Ormund (Alexandra Dowling, David Schaal) whose marriage is on a rocky patch, has brought him here. A workaholic before the term even existed, Walter spends most his time in his room working (on accounts?) and drinking whiskey, while Janet is left to occupy herself with long walks, her only 'companion' headteacher Oliver Farrant – Daniel Souter.

Even though I Have Been Here Before was written nearly 80 years ago, its reference to Middle England being wary of foreign visitors is just as pertinent today as it was in Britain during the interwar years. I'm sure Priestley would have appreciated the recognition of echoes of yesterday, of history's lessons unlearnt.

With regards to the actual production, a non-naturalist set has been chosen for the play – something that hints at the circular nature of time, rather than a country pub in the 1930s.  In this respect, the design of the set eliminates any verisimilitude in the decor, placing its emphasis firmly on depicting time as a circular phenomenon. It also subliminally put some distance between the cast and the audience, even though in reality they are very close to each other.

Thankfully, the casting for the respective roles is spot on and their performances are very much rooted in reality, the stereotypical 'English reserve' misinterpreting the directness of Teutonic conversation as rude and inpertinent.

Binns' Sally wears of her heart on her sleeve, fearful that Dr Görtler's directness and preternatural knowledge of events will upset and indirectly affect those whose will have the biggest influence on her son' future – Oliver Farrant and Walter Ormond. The openness of Schaal's Walter eclipses that of Sally – convivial, forthright, easily angered when 'imbibing', but also quick to apologise. Dowling by contrast as his trophy wife has cool reserve, the antithesis of husband (and to a degree of Sally Pratt) keeping her innermost thoughts and feelings in check. Souter's Farrant wears his intellectual demeanour as a mask, a way of protecting himself from others or his own self-doubts while Parry's Sam exhibits a contentment that isn't found within the knowledgeable Dr Görtler.
For all of its metaphysical trappings, I Have Been Here Before is more than an explanation for the phenomenon of déjà vu. It is about the most grounded and accessible lesson that anyone can grasp, that it is never too late to change your future.

© Michael Davis 2016

I Have Been Here Before runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 21st May 2016.


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