Mercury play more than a box of tricks

Dangerous Corner: JB Priestley, Mercury Theatre, Colchester until Saturday'AN INGENIOUS box of tricks' is how John Boynton Priestley described this, his first play, written 75 years ago.

Dangerous Corner: JB Priestley, Mercury Theatre, Colchester until Saturday

'AN INGENIOUS box of tricks' is how John Boynton Priestley described this, his first play, written 75 years ago. It's certainly that and much more. It's an intensely absorbing comedy thriller that gets the Mercury Theatre audience fascinated and amused at its endless twists and turns.

The trouble starts when, at a seemingly innocuous 1930s dinner party at the home of a family publisher, an author who's a guest there (Shirley Ann Field as the guilelessly acid Miss Mockridge) drops a casual remark and promptly goes off to bed.

The remark, about the suicide of the publisher's brother a year previously, is what sets those left in the room recalling the past.

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Director Ian Dickens, whose production company has been touring successfully since the early 90s has once again assembled a cast featuring familiar TV actors clearly enjoying treading the boards.

It's almost a study in the mechanics of theatre. Priestley is experimenting with how far he can stretch our disbelief and bend both plot and character while still taking us along with him. Sometimes we're surprised, usually we're two steps ahead.

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Priestley's chief device is Time, which in his 1945 (and best) play, An Inspector Calls is not only a dramatic technique but an instrument for making social comment.

Here the issue he's exploring is Truth. Social relationships work only because we live according to a code of half-truths and lies.

Think about it. Think about the last friendly gathering you were at. There'll be some there you liked less than others, the odd one you distrust, or who bores you. There might be someone, perhaps more than one, that privately - very privately - you fancy. How awful if we were required to lay our cards on the table, to tell the absolute truth.

This is the proposition Priestley gives us through the challenge of the central character, the increasingly hounded Robert, perceptively played by Tony O'Callaghan (Sergeant Boyden from The Bill).

He's trying to discover the truth about the suicide. Things come out thick and fast, things that weren't said the inquest. We're drawn into a world of lies and deceit, theft, sordid affairs, unrequited love, drugs, hatred, and even madness.

Throughout, Peter Amory (formerly Chris Tate in Emmerdale ) is engagingly caddish and cynical, Georgina Sutton is put upon but defiant, and Chloe Newsome (from Coronation Street) is not so innocent as she looks.

The ruthless search for truth can change a fool's Paradise into a fool's Hell. Whether it happens at all hinges on a revolver shot and a musical box tune. I'll tell you no more.

Ivan Howlett

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