“So all the time, while you were pretending to work, you’ve been having the most astonishing adventures in that corner?”
Continuing their well-trodden path of delving into the dusty shelves of neglected British plays, the Finborough have come up trumps yet again with this neatly amusing and unpredictable little curiosity Cornelius. Written in 1935 by J.B. Priestley, especially for his friend Ralph Richardson, it was something of a flop and consequently remains little produced – this will be the first time in over 70 years that the play has been seen in London – but Sam Yates’ production flows with an undeniably persuasive energy to make this a revival worth paying attention to.
Set in the Holborn office of an aluminium import firm that is struggling to avoid bankruptcy, junior partner Jim Cornelius sets about trying to keep the creditors sweet and the office spirits from flagging, in the hope that salvation will come at the last minute from the firm’s senior partner. He suspects it is a vain hope though and as he swings from poignant reflections on lives that have been lived and exuberant positivity in the potential that still remains out there, a delicately touching portrayal of office life emerges which is hard to resist.
At the centre of it all in Alan Cox’s titular character, an irrepressible presence to warm the very cockles of this play and deliciously engaging with it. Cox swoops and glides with such an easy comic grace that lends a greater pathos to the lows that must surely accompany such highs and negotiates the transition into tragicomedy beautifully. Around him, a quality ensemble flutter, telling the stories of his colleagues with excellent attention to detail. Col Farrell’s daffy Biddle is highly endearing, David Ellis’ appealing Lawrence is chomping at the bit for more opportunities in the glamourous world of the ‘wireless’, Emily Barber’s effortlessly vivacious Judy – something rather deliciously redolent of Gemma Arterton about her – stirs something deep inside Cornelius as a late arrival into this office team and upsetting the balance, Annabel Topham’s prim Miss Porrin building up a world of genuine pain behind her pursed lips – excellent work.
There are also glimpses of the world outside this office, with its harsh economic outlook. Clear resonances surface in the difficulties in finding good jobs, the desperation of those barely scraping by, the frustrations of the impact of cut-throat commercialism on hard-working people. Priestley, and by extension Yates, wisely keeps this as a secondary unforced note though, allowing the interactions of this group of people to remain the true focus. David Woodhead’s remarkably effective and clever design creates a real sense of location, both within, in the hermetic cocoon of the safe office and without, in the sounds – composed by Alex Baranowski – of the changing world outside, full of possibility.