Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Anthony Biggs: I Have Been Here Before

By | Published on Thursday 5 May 2016


Jermyn Street is known for its revivals of lesser known plays, and I was ever so pleased to see that the latest piece to be brought back to life at the venue is by JB Priestley, because he is one of my absolute favourites.
‘I Have Been Here Before’, one of the playwright’s ‘time plays’, explores supernatural themes, and for this staging features a fairly starry cast. I spoke to the director of the show, Jermyn Street AD Anthony Biggs, to find out more.

CM: What is ‘I Have Been Here Before’ all about? What’s the story?
AB: It’s a supernatural tale about a group of people staying at a remote inn on the Yorkshire moors. At first their lives seem to be unconnected, but when a mysterious German doctor arrives and begins asking questions, they soon discover that their lives are inextricably linked, and a decision by one of them could have serious consequences for all of them. But what is even more disturbing is the possibility that everything that is happening may have occurred before.

CM: This is one of Priestley’s ‘time plays’, isn’t it? Can you explain what that means? What was the playwright trying to explore?
AB: Priestley wrote a number of plays that explored the theme of Time, including ‘Time and the Conways’, ‘Dangerous Corner’ and ‘The Inspector Calls’. Each play is influenced by a different theory.

Priestley credits the book ‘A New Model of the Universe’ by P.D. Ouspensky as the inspiration for ‘I Have Been Here Before’. Ouspensky, a Russian mathematician, believed that time is not linear, but spiral, and that we live our lives over and over again. Priestley used this theory to explore how a person can, by making a fateful decision, change the course of the future for themselves and others.

CM: What made you want to direct this particular play? Are you a fan of Priestley in general?
AB: Well firstly it’s a really compelling story, and it hasn’t been done in London for many years. I’ve seen other plays of his, and always admired his work. Like many of the playwrights of the early/mid twentieth century, Priestley went out of fashion for a while, but his plays always felt a bit of a guilty pleasure for me.

The last revival I directed, in the autumn, was Eugene O’Neill’s ‘The First Man’, which explored the theme of Evolution, a very contentious topic in 1920’s America. Priestley’s play, as influenced by Ouspensky, argues that rather than evolving as a species, we are merely becoming more sophisticated, and that if we want to make a real difference to our lives and those of others we have to first accept that life has a design and is not just a series of random accidents.

CM: It’s not the most recognisable Priestley title – why do you think this might have been overlooked in the past?
AB: Hard to say. Stephen Daldry’s wonderful revival of ‘An Inspector Calls’, which was first produced by the National Theatre back in the early nineties and is currently on tour again, demonstrates how popular his plays can be. Perhaps ‘I Have Been Here Before’ is more complex and less melodramatic. It used to be revived a lot in repertory theatre, but producers nowadays tend to concentrate on the two or three best known plays by any author. That may indicate that audiences are becoming more conservative and risk-averse, or that it is harder to attract star actors to perform in lesser-known work, or that producers are less sure of backing an unknown quantity. Probably a mixture of these things. Luckily that leaves room for us at Jermyn Street Theatre to explore these lost gems.

CM: Are there other Priestley works you’d like to tackle?
AB: I think ‘The Linden Tree’ is really good play, and there are some very interesting works that are never done now including ‘Desert Highway’ which is about a group of British soldiers in the desert in North Africa during WW2, with a wonderfully unusual second act that takes place in the same location a few thousand years before, and has a number of parallels with what is happening in Syria at the moment. I’m also discussing a possible adaptation of Priestley’s best-known book ‘The Good Companions’.

CM: Can you tell me a bit about your cast for this? Who are they and how did they get involved?
AB: I’m lucky that such talented actors want to work at Jermyn Street Theatre. I think our central location, and our choice of programming can be very appealing to actors, especially those who have been working in other areas of the industry such as TV, film or large-scale theatre. Alexandra Dowling has performed at Jermyn Street before, though she is probably best known for her lead role in the TV series ‘The Musketeers’. Vicky Binns has been a regular on TV for many years in shows like ‘Coronation Street’. Dave Schaal is probably best known for his comedy work in ‘The Office’ and ‘The Inbetweeners’. Daniel Souter is one of the founders of The New Actors Company who are co-producing with us. Edward Halsted has been doing great work with companies like PunchDrunk, and Keith Parry has recently been in a show at Jermyn Street Theatre and is someone I’ve been dying to work with. Although I hadn’t directed any of them in a full production before, I  had a very clear idea of who I wanted for this play, and so we went straight to the actors rather than auditioning.

CM: As well as being the director of this, you’re the AD of Jermyn Street, of course. What can we expect, coming up?
AB: We have Dina Korzun, a Russian actress from the Moscow Arts Theatre, who is performing Oscar Wilde’s short story ‘Star Child’, in Russian with subtitles. Don’t let that put you off – she is a quite sensational performer and show is utterly compelling. Also coming up we have two high-profile actors, Michael Brandon and Cheri Lunghi, in a fabulous new play ‘Off The King’s Road’, and a revival of the seventies musical ‘I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road’, directed by Matthew Gould and starring Landi Oshinowo. In the Autumn we have some really exciting shows coming up including work by A.A. Milne, Strinberg, and Jane Austen. Information about this season will be released later this month.

CM: Anything else in the pipeline?
AB: My production of ‘I Loved Lucy’, about the American TV Icon Lucille Ball, which enjoyed two very successful runs at Jermyn Street Theatre earlier this year is set to be performed in New York this July. We are also in discussions about a possible transfer to a larger London theatre next year. Meanwhile, my production of O’Neill’s ‘The First Man’ is in pre-production for filming in the autumn, and in the summer I’m looking to direct a site-specific production of new Catalan play about immigration.

‘I Have Been Here Before’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 3-21 May. See this page here for info and to book.


Photo: Scott Rylander