From Ralph Richardson to Alan Cox in ‘Cornelius’

Any actor taking on what the savvy, longtime drama critic of The Guardian calls “a monumental leading role” expressly written for the great Ralph Richardson, is either crazy or brave — possibly both. Which partly explains why the role hadn’t been done in more than 70 years until Alan Cox brought it back to life in London last September. And now he is about to do it again Off Broadway in New York.

To judge from the London reviews — raves across the board — the actor is both brave and sane. More than that in the revival of J.B. Priestly’s forgotten 1935 play “Cornelius,” he’s “charismatic and effervescent,” “superbly double-edged,” “irrepressible” and “deliciously engaging,” “raffish” and “dynamic,” “ebullient,” “charming and witty,” “bluff and blustering, appealing in his modesty and humour,” as well as “perfect in bringing out nuance and adding the touch of poetry that makes his character fascinating.”

Can any actor be and do all of that, let alone all at the same time? Michael Billington had no doubt of it, declaring in The Guardian that Cox fills the role “to the brim” with a “two-toned performance.” Never having seen Cox on stage, I actually don’t know what a two-toned performance is. But I have heard him deliver some poems by Heathcote Williams, which he recites in the most sublime of silvery tones, and however many tones an actor can accomodate on his tongue, I’m certain Cox possesses them all. Listen to “Shelley at Oxford” or “The Lord of the Drones and the White House Fly” or “Being Kept by a Jackdaw” and tell me you don’t agree.

As to the production of the play, which with the original cast is being brought from London lock, stock, and barrel, the reviewers also had nothing but highest praise. It is said to have an “undeniably persuasive energy” that is “perfectly pitched, ideally cast and neatly designed.” The play, set during the Great Depression and revolving around a businessman trying to keep the creditors of his small import company at bay, depicts “the anxieties, humour, despair and obstinate hopes of an age of recession.” Which makes it especially relevant today. Or as The [London] Times critic wrote, “Anyone who has ever sat behind an office desk and felt a creeping, claustrophobic panic will find [‘Cornelius’] painfully pertinent.” I realize you can’t always trust theater reviewers. But when they are uniformly pleased, they might be onto something. Didn’t Lincoln say that even reviewers can’t be fooled all of the time?

The show begins a limited run at 59E59 Theaters on June 1. (Buy tickets online.) In the meantime, Alan Cox and the director Sam Yates, who has received his own share of plaudits, will be at the Drama Book Shop (250 West 40th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues) on Tuesday, May 28 at 6 p.m. to talk about the show in a special Q&A. It’s free and open to the public.

Alan Cox stars as the title character in the Off Broadway revival of J.B. Priestley’s ‘Cornelius’ at 59E59 Theaters.

Now have a look at the cast and credits: Emily Barber (“Orpheus and Eurydice,” National Youth Theatre,); Alex Bartram (“Hedda Gabler,” “Duke of York,” Almeida Theatre); Robin Browne (“House and Garden,” National Theatre); Pandora Colin (“Design for Living,” directed by Peter Hall, Bath Theatre Royal); Alan Cox (“The Caretaker,” BAM); David Ellis (“The Ballad of the Copper Revolution,” Old Vic Tunnels); Andrew Fallaize (“The Prince of Homburg,” Royal Shakespeare Company); Col Farrell (“The Dresser,” Duke of York’s Theatre); Beverley Klein (“Les Miserables,” Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, and Palace Theatre); Jamie Newall (“The Alchemist,” National Theatre), Xanthe Patterson, and Simon Rhodes (“Accomplice,” Menier Chocolate Factory). Wow.

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