Time and the Conways
J B Priestley
RNT Lyttelton Theatre
Review by Philip Fisher
J B Priestley gave the National Theatre one of its biggest ever hits with Stephen Daldry's revival of An Inspector Calls, which is still touring 17 years on.
Time and the Conways is not as good a play but nevertheless fascinates in a production that the prolific Rupert Goold plays straight.
The young director can sometimes go into enfant terrible mode, ripping works as diverse as Doctor Faustus and Six Characters in Search of an Author apart and putting them back together with wild and often very entertaining additions. On this occasion, he obviously believes that the play and characters are well able to speak for themselves.
Time and the Conways is one of the Time Plays in which the writer explores the outer reaches of physics and the ideas of J.W.Dunne. In the most simplified form, he believed that, rather than being linear, time, like geography, happens all at once but in different spaces.
The consequence is a drama that has to be as carefully orchestrated as a farce and relies for much of its impact on a revelatory and deeply moving final act.
Designer Laura Hopkins, ably assisted by the beautifully nuanced lighting of Mark Henderson, makes a large ante-room at the Conways' family pile stunning. It comes over like two works of art, the first filled with opulent red furnishings and decor, the second far more puritanical and austere.
They are separated by the whole of the inter-war period and a remarkable development in the lives of six grown children and their mother, mirroring the fortunes of their type, as the class system collapsed.
This makes the play strangely Chekhovian and Francesca Annis' optimistic but hopeless mother is straight out of the great Russian's stable. The actress is convincing in the part and does the most effective impression of Joan Plowright imaginable in portraying the older Mrs Conway.
The children are all carefully created to make points and the consequence is that the play can seem schematic.
His point, as with An Inspector Calls, is that character will out and as often as not, life will kick you in the teeth. His genius is in showing his audience the future in 1938 before returning them to 1919, where they can view the family with retrospective horror, knowing their fates.
The most poignant example is the youngest Carol, played to perfection by Faye Castelow, who is doomed to prove that only the good die young. The young actress has effortlessly stepped up from notable performances in the Havel Season at the Orange Tree and should be set for a sparkling career.
At the other end of the scale is her future brother-in-law Gerald, a heartless Northern capitalist and another character borrowed from Chekhov, whose awfulness is a tribute to actor Adrian Scarborough.
Hattie Morahan's would-be novelist Kay choreographs the whole, from the perspective of her 21st birthday and then, in the sandwich, her 40th. She is as good an exemplar as almost every family member of how disappointment is practically a Conway destiny, only Paul Ready's accepting Alan largely escaping, thanks to his lack of hope or ambition.
Rupert Goold adds some subtle touches, including a dance with seven Kays and a final hologram that adds to a haunting atmosphere that eventually overcomes the clichés of character. These are probably inevitable when a writer is so set on following a carefully crafted plan to present his vital message.
Priestley is an underrated playwright and also novelist (try Lost Empires) and it would be good if Goold persuaded the National to present the whole of this series in the near future, as part of a campaign to restore the Yorkshireman's reputation for a new generation.