They Came to a City

They Came to a City
© Maffoto Media They Came to The City

A century on from its heyday, the Utopian fiction of the twentieth century now seems not so much dated as plain alien. Yet a hundred years ago, old Europe was ripe for change, and the likes of Wells and Shaw allowed themselves dreams of renewal on a scale the West could scarcely now imagine. One of the last great works of Utopia was this 1943 drama by JD Priestley, a hit at the height of the Second World War but scarcely revived since.

In a simple, effective structure, nine strangers awaken to find themselves outside the walls of an unfamiliar city. They converse, establishing stations and characters: there’s complacent toff Sir George Gedney, soulless capitalist Cudworth, and the heroes of the piece, cynical barmaid Alice and disillusioned idealist Joe. At the end of the first half they enter the city; in the second they mill outside the walls and debate their experiences.

Priestley keeps the exact nature of the city vague, but its inhabitants would appear to enjoy a left leaning meritocracy that repulses aristocratic relics like Sir George, but reignites the fire in Alice and James’s hearts. Essentially, the play calls for the creation of a welfare state; given that Atlee answered that call two years later, ‘They Came to a City’ is unavoidably of its time, despite the best efforts of our current government.

But if there’s an excess of dated rhetoric here, there’s also plenty of wit, and the nine characters are drawn with care. Robert Laycock’s production for The New Actors Company is efficient and engaging, and though James Robinson’s hero Joe is unfortunately bland, the rest of the performances are excellent, particularly Charlotte Donachie’s battered, whipsmart Alice.

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