Thursday, October 18, 2012


Phoenix Theatre Company at Christ Church

Social Justice is not a fashionable concept these days, but in the darkest years of the last war, our greatest writers were keen to visualize what utopia might rise from the ashes.

In Priestley's intriguing period piece, nine characters from all ranks of 1940s society, with their jealousies, frustrations and disappointments, are shown a shining city; they may choose to stay or return to their earthly lives. The capitalist and the aristocrat are amongst those who leave, the char and the heiress amongst those who remain.

In Angela Gee's production, the nobility were less convincing generally than the plebs. Fine character work from Syd Smith and Tricia Childs as a henpecked banker and his domineering wife, and from Helen Langley as the salt-of-the-earth char.

What Priestley is advocating, of course, is that we take the vision of the city where "men don't work for machines and money" back to our imperfect world, building a new Jerusalem in place of the dark Satanic mills. And it is left to mechanic Joe [well portrayed by Andy Millward] and shopgirl Alice [the Googie Withers role excellently done by Jean Speller] to leave us on that optimistic note.

But despite the NHS and the Welfare State and Comprehensive Education, I suspect that, seventy years on, Joe and Alice have still much work to do to make Whitman's Great City a reality.

The Great City
by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
The place where a great city stands is not the place of stretch'd wharves, docks, manufactures, deposits of produce merely,
Nor the place of ceaseless salutes of new-comers or the anchor-lifters of the departing,
Nor the place of the tallest and costliest buildings or shops selling goods from the rest of the earth,
Nor the place of the best libraries and schools, nor the place where money is plentiest,
Nor the place of the most numerous population.
Where the city stands with the brawniest breed of orators and bards,
Where the city stands that is belov'd by these, and loves them in return and understands them,
Where no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds,
Where thrift is in its place, and prudence is in its place,
Where the men and women think lightly of the laws,
Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases,
Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons,
Where fierce men and women pour forth as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves,
Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority,
Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay,
Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves,
Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs,
Where speculations on the soul are encouraged,
Where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as the men,
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men;
Where the city of the faithfulest friends stands,
Where the city of the cleanliness of the sexes stands,
Where the city of the healthiest fathers stands,
Where the city of the best-bodied mothers stands,
There the great city stands.

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