Office romance lifts us out of a slump

Office romance lifts us out of a slump

Cornelius (Finborough Theatre, London)

Rating:  Star Rating

A bright, forgotten gem by  J. B. Priestley unseen since 1935, Cornelius is set in the London office of aluminium importers Briggs & Murrison.

Ebullient Jim Cornelius (Alan Cox), his unlit pipe in his pocket, is trying to keep staff happy and creditors at bay. He hopes his partner Murrison will return from his travels with a full order book, but we glean from the off it’s unlikely to happen.

The employees arrive at the dowdy Thirties office with polite formalities. A stream of hawkers turn up as the hours tick by. Cornelius disdains their wares but is generous with his shillings, while staving off the demands of the bank.

Give him credit: Alan Cox, with Emily Barber, is 'a joy' as the put-upon boss

Give him credit: Alan Cox, with Emily Barber, is ‘a joy’ as the put-upon boss

The play is shot through with Priestley’s socialism but director Sam Yates doesn’t over-egg parallels with today’s slump: everyone stuck in jobs they dare not leave, waiting for the axe to fall.

Rather, its focus is the personnel, together a sort of family soldiering on: a cashier (Col Farrell), doing the books in quiet absorption; Miss Porrin (Annabel Topham), a sad spinster; Lawrence (David Ellis), the office boy dreaming of a career in the ‘wireless’.

Cox is a joy as the boss, an eccentric, impulsive man much taken with a book he is reading on the Incas. When  a pretty secretary (Emily Barber) arrives in place of her sister, he begins to do all sorts of strange things, such as sniffing her lost glove. Cox plays him as a Reggie Perrin fantasist, blending pathos and then potential tragedy as Murrison (Jamie Newall) returns with a glint in his eye, a gun in his coat and bad news for the firm.

Out in the street you can hear the world changing (thanks to composer Alex Baranowski). What will become of these characters, or indeed us, we ask,  in this beautifully staged and fascinating  production.

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