"Desert Highway" [March 1952]


Trooper Iltydd Hughes N. H. CUNNINGTON.
Trooper George Wick R. J. J. ORTON.
Trooper "Knocker" Elvin I. A. MOTTERSHAW.
Corporal Philip Donnington K. W. PATCHETT
Trooper Herbert Shaw E. P. LODGE.
Sergeant Ben Joseph R. BUTLER.

MR. PRIESTLEY'S dramatic expositions of the oddities of Time and the enormities of capitalism are familiar enough, but it seems faintly indecent for one who has so often imagined Utopia in England's green and pleasant land to hold forth on the subject of Original Sin. Mr. Priestley's Utopia, after all, depended on the assumption that the Common Man either was, or could quickly become, perfect.

Surprisingly, however, Desert Highway fails not through any deficiency in the author's new-found theology, but through lack of dramatic conflict. There can be no conflict in action, for the soldiers with the broken-down tank are wholly at the mercy of the enemy, nor is there any Shavian clash of ideas, for no-one makes out any consistent argument against Sergeant Joseph's Judaism. The play's attractions therefore consist of humour, of which there is plenty, the characterisation, and the colourful Interlude. Mr. Watling's production made the most of these attractions and almost succeeded in hiding the play's lack of dramatic conflict.

Patchett, as the highly educated but cynical and unstable Donnington, had the most difficult part to play, and emerged with considerable credit. Despite a tendency to rant in the early speeches, he managed by word, expression and gesture, to convey the fevered introspection of one who hates life because he is at odds with himself. In the Interlude he carried complete conviction in the much easier part of the Egyptian scribe. As the Sergeant, Butler found it difficult to convey the impression of potential but as yet undemonstrated power and authority in the first Act, but successfully took command of the stage as . the second Act wore on. His diction was invariably clear, and he had the right combination of benevolence and a slight aloofness.

Wick, the West-country lad who is killed, is the author's chief failure in characterisation. The only impression of him which emerges from reading the play is that this sacrificial lamb is not very frisky. No-one could have done more to bring this colourless character alive than did Orton, whose diction was beautifully clear and precise. The part of Shaw, the Yorkshireman and "wet blanket" of the party, is the answer to a comedy-actor's prayer; Lodge played it with complete assurance, speaking clearly and timing his jokes perfectly. He has a tendency, however, to be rather "wooden" in his movements. Cunnington, as Hughes, was not always audible, and his Welsh accent needed to be more pronounced. He was at his best in the Interlude, where the fervour and superstition of this dramatic descendant of Shakespeare's Glendower are more evident.

DESERT HIGHWAY, Act I: (left to right) E. P. Lodge, R. Butler, K. W. Patchett, I. A. Mottershaw,
R. J. J. Orton, N, H. Cunnington.

Undoubtedly the most consistently successful performance came from Mottershaw. His accent never faltered, and throughout he was the complete Cockney; quick-witted, materialistic, yet warm-hearted. Particularly noticeable was his control of facial expression; he conveyed the whole contrast between Elvin's brittle exterior and impulsive soul in one anxious look when Wick was lying unconscious in the tent.

The cast, on the whole, made the best of a bad job, and their performance was given invaluable support by an efficient back-stage team of stage-managers, electricians, dressers, and the rest; but it is a great pity that the producer should be -so restricted in his choice of plays by this impossible stage. There must be plenty of acting talent in so large a school, but no play needing a cast of more than half-a-dozen can be chosen, lest the stage become overcrowded. For the same reason the selected play must demand only the barest minimum of scenery. Surely the raison d'etre of a school dramatic society is to give as many boys as possible a chance to enjoy the unique thrill of acting. Although Mr. Watling performs something like a miracle each year, the school needs a stage on which his wide experience could be more fully utilised.

L. A.

[KES Mag March 1952]