The title character of Johnson Over Jordan, J B Priestley's 1939 drama of a dying man who relives scenes from his life, is apparently an Everyman figure – quiet, decent, grey. But, just as he tries to pass off busyness as complexity, Priestley uses the "little man" theme as a vehicle for his hearty mysticism and self-exculpation.
As his spirit leaves his body, Johnson leaps from his bed and travels back and forth in time. Once again, he starts work at the company where he will stay for 30 years, meets his wife, has a son. There's some unlived life to catch up on, too. Jude Kelly's production sets the play in the present, changing the deathbed scene from Johnson's home to a hospital, and adding some topical references ("I'm going clubbing!").
In a grotesque nightclub (one man has a long furry tail, another wiggles a champagne bottle in front of his crotch), Johnson hires a tart who is got-up like an eight-year-old, though there's no cause but fashion to saddle him with paedophilia. The girl resists, and when a boy runs in and starts a fight, Johnson stabs him. Then he realises that the two are his son and daughter (this made more sense in 1939, when the actors wore masks until the end of the scene).
As Johnson, Patrick Stewart has the unenviable job of supplying some warmth and humanity to this blank, symbolic wanderer. He puts on a brave face, but the performance is little more than face-making – broad, tight smile for determined optimism, open-mouthed shock on hearing his mother died young because she refused a necessary operation, fearing "the expense and trouble it would cause her husband and children". (Priestley seems to think that this makes her a saint rather than a fool.)
Nicholas Blane has much more success with his multiple roles (grieving relative, tetchy millionaire, repulsive madam), making each a wonderful creation of absurd comedy or poignant tact.
The question, never answered, that shadows the play is why Johnson is harangued and vilified. Why does his wife call him lazy and improvident – a transparently false charge – and say that she wishes she'd never met him? Why does he say, "I don't deserve to be happy"? Johnson may not have had any cause for this guilt, but Priestley did – he was relentlessly unfaithful to his wife, even when she was dying of cancer. Mrs Johnson's hysterical reproaches for petty or non-existent crimes sound like substitutes for a more painful complaint. It's hard not to feel this when Johnson tells his wife he has always loved her, and she replies, as if she were the one dying: "Because at last you say that ... I am at peace."
In the original play, Johnson had a speech (now a brief remark) about his fear of death, stemming from his years, like Priestley's, in the trenches of the First World War. Priestley may have meant to suggest that, after such horrors, a man has a need, and a right, to grab at life at every chance he gets. In the muddle that is Johnson Over Jordan, however, such ideas never come to light, much less strike sparks.
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