The opening premise of J.B. Priestley's political fantasy They Came To A City sounds more like the pilot episode of an American TV series than a 1940s English play: Nine people from different parts of the country and a variety of backgrounds are mysteriously teleported to a dark and anonymous place. There's a mother and daughter plus a married couple but most are strangers, and they initially interact as would befit the lives they left behind. As the sun comes up they realise they're outside a walled city whose gates eventually open for them. Inside they discover a socialist utopia which unsurprisingly delights those who've led downtrodden lives while horrifying the ones born into privilege or whose lives revolve around money. After a slightly stilted start the cast relax into their roles and work well together in the various configurations the ensemble is sorted into; the arrival of Jean Perkins' warm Mrs Batley particularly helping bring things to life. Priestley's dialogue gives them plenty of opportunities for wonderfully spiky exchanges and director Robert Laycock has established strong visuals, Matt Tarbuck's lighting atmospherically using the curved walls of The Vault. Rarely performed, I can see why now seemed a good time to revive the play - a running joke about the City's inhabitants finding capitalism hilarious invariably got the biggest laughs tonight. But Priestley's idealism makes the play's overall message hard to swallow and however convincingly James Robinson delivers his final call to arms can't disguise its sledgehammer subtlety. Well-produced and performed in an appropriately mysterious setting, the play has a lot of strengths but its weaknesses are also glaringly apparent so it's not that surprising that it remains a rarity.
They Came To A City by J.B. Priestley is booking until the 28th of May at The Vault at Southwark Playhouse.