Time and the Conways

JB Priestley
A Theatre Royal Bath Production
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2004)

It is a little frightening to observe that this play, first produced less than six years before this reviewer was born, is now very much a period piece. It is set early in both 1919 and 1939 and is primarily an exposition of Priestley's ideas on the nature of time, which he explored in other plays such as Dangerous Corner. It is a family saga, which contrasts the hopes of the Conway family on the evening of Kay Conway's 21st birthday with the reality of their lives twenty years later.

Priestley's way of making this contrast is to shows us the 1919 scene in acts one and two and the 1939 in act two, using the idea of time, gained from his study of the works of occultist Peter Ouspensky and the psychologist JW Dunne, as a spiral and the ability of some people (in this case, Kay) to bridge the gap between different times under certain circumstances, thus viewing the future as if it is the present and carrying an impression of that future back with them.

The problem is that the lives of the Conway family are, to be frank, only marginally interesting and the part that would have made them much more fascinating to us, the way in which their lives take a totally different path from what they intend, is passed by without any mention whatsoever. It merely is so: there is a big contrast between aspirations and achievements but no explanation of why, for what Priestley is interested in is expressing the theory.

In other words, the play is didactic and, although we do get the know the characters reasonably well in the first act and we do find them to be people to whom we can relate, in the second act they have changed to such an extent that most are unrecognisable (except physically) for, although the seeds of the changes they experience are present in act one, it is only with hindsight that we recognise this and there is nothing to suggest that things would follow the path they did rather than any other.

No doubt the theories of time expressed may well have been new and even exciting in the thirties but today's audiences need something more, which, unfortunately, the play does not provide. There are, too, longueurs in the second act when the piece becomes overtly didactic and I felt a certain restlessness in the audience.

This is not the fault of a predominantly young cast who manage the transition from youth to middle age and back again extremely well and there is no one whom I could single out as being stronger or weaker than the rest, although I have to admit I was much taken with the youthful exuberance of Eilidh Macdonald as the "baby" of the family, Carol, and the nicely understated playing of Jamie Chapman as the very ordinary but extraordinarily good-natured Alan. But the mention these two should not take away from the excellent performances of the rest.

One is left wondering why the producers felt it a good idea to revive the play at all, except that it is a good vehicle for the "star", Penelope Keith, to whom it offers yet another chance to play the kind of part for which she has become known over the years.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan