The National Theatre’s enthralling production of JB Priestley’s haunting, metaphysical and sociological play Time and the Conways directed by Rupert Goold shows the shift of fortune of an upper-class family in three acts. What transpires through the passage of time does not reflect their hopes and aspirations.
First Act Time and the Conways 1919
The play opens in 1919 at the end of the First World War with a party celebrating the 21st birthday of Kay, the beautiful and aspiring novelist daughter of the seemingly benign widow Mrs Conway, played by Francesca Annis with an artful authority and grace; matriach to five other children.The Conways are preparing a frivolous charade, donning colourful clothes, feathers, cloaks and false noses dancing and whirling in the florid and opulent living room set conveying a theatrical unbridled optimism for their future.
The Characters in Time and the Conways
Sister Hazel sees herself romantically married to a rich man with all the trappings and indulgences that status and wealth provides. Madge is a fervent believer in the socialist cause; innocent Carol, the youngest and sweetest, sees only the best in humanity.
Robin the demobbed RAF pilot, handsome and unsure of his destiny, pins his future hopes to the business of selling motor cars. Finally the last of the Conway children, Alan, is happy being an ordinary clerk in a local Town Hall satisfied with his lot but hopelessly carrying the torch for family friend Joan Helford. The fate of these characters carries the plot and theme of Priestley’s play.
Second Act Time and the Conways 1938
The second act leaps forward to 1938 once again the birthday of Kay but in stark contrast to the opening act. The mood is sombre and the same room is austerely furnished as a boardroom. Frivolity and jubilation replaced by the harsh economic depression and the approach of the second world war. Now the embittered Conways are forced to face their shattered dreams.
Third Act Time and the Conways Returns to 1919
The third act jumps back in time to the frozen moment at Kay’s 21st birthday party that closed the first act. Priestley’s masterstroke reveals how time and mistakes have already been rooted in each of the characters’ destinies.Thus the underlying theme of the play and Priestley’s theory that time is not linear and that past, present and future exist together is brilliantly illustrated in a production that is both entertaining and unsettling.
Priestley’s thought provoking and insightful play might have seemed old-fashioned a few years ago but in Time and the Conways references to the post war housing boom in 1919 and then the bust in 1938 certainly causes titters in the audience striking a chord with the 2009 housing collapse.
Superb Ensemble Acting in Priestley’s Profound Play
The ensemble acting is of the highest order as expected from the National Theatre. There are priceless moments, as when Hattie Morahan’s Kay gulps and gasps at her possible perception of the future; Fenella Woolgar’s Madge turning from bright beamed socialist ageing into a prim stiff and bitter headmistress, or Lydia Leonard’s Hazel, her vanity and confidence gone as she settles to become the wife of plebian property developer Ernest Beavers, vindictively played by Adrian Scarborough.
Other praiseworthy moments: Mark Dexter’s handsome feckless Robin, the apple of his mother’s eye, whose hand is always searching for Dutch courage from the bottle and the vital performance of Lisa Jackson’s Joan Helford with her funny-sad high-pitched voice and her exuberance as she gangly strides across the stage. There’s sweet Carol, wisely played with willowy ethereal grace by Faye Castelow, and Alistair Petrie’s rod-backed performance as lawyer Gerald Thornton shielding his attachment to the family.
Francesca Annis plays Mrs Conway as the grand hostess, with her magical, sensual grace that was once the epicentre of her family, changing to a dry figurehead of despair. Lastly, Paul Ready’s Alan whose character probably holds the key to comprehending Priestley’s work: he gently shrugs when cornered, offering unflustered replies to burning questions and wise smiles whenever he has nothing to say.
Director Rupert Goold’s firm hand on this dense and complex play reaps many rewards. His inventions of images of time, even within the actors’ performances, are very creative. An outright interpretation of the movement of time at the end of act one by literally breaking apart the set only to rebuild it in the time gap with an infusion of a rythmical music soundtrack is theatrically exciting.
However to this reviewer his embellishment at the end of act three of a large black and white screen with actors seemingly dancing and waving their arms is a good symbol but might have been better left in the rehearsal room.Time and the Conways stands the test of time without the need of visual emphasis, remaining ever profound.