Time and the Conways @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Francesca Annis, Adrian Scarborough, Paul Ready , Mark Dexter, Lisa Jackson, Lydia Leonard, Hattie Morahan, Alistair Petrie, Fenella Woolgar

directed by
Rupert Goold
It is difficult to enter the world of J.B. Priestley’s Conway family without thinking of Virginia Woolf’s Pargiters.

The Years was published in 1937, the same year that Priestley’s play was first staged, and charts the fortunes of a similarly sized family over several decades.

But while it is the linear passage of time that interests Woolf the toll it takes, the way people age and change Priestly has a more idiosyncratic take on time, very much influenced by the theories of J. W Dunne, that time is eternally present, that our pasts, presents and futures somehow exist simultaneously and that, therefore, we are all our moments, the best and worst of them.
The Conways are a large brood: four daughters, two sons, and a mother recently widowed. Spanning the years between the wars, Time and the Conways opens in 1919, on the night of Kay Conway’s 21st birthday. Everybody is dressed up and gathered together, party games are being played, the younger son Robin is home on leave, the mood is celebratory, optimistic about the future.

The second act of this hefty three act play (three hours, two intervals) allows a glimpse of this future. There is a leap forwards, of almost twenty years; the bright young things are now world-worn and disappointed. Marriages have crumbled, promised novels have never been written, the family is beset by money problems and death has robbed them of one of their number. The dominant mood is one of bitterness, the once close family have fragmented, and petty resentments are harboured.

This scene is a kind of premonition, glimpsed by a frightened Kay from her place in the past, a reflection of things to come. It seems fitting that a door, a window and a mirror occupy prominent positions on Laura Hopkins set, one on each wall; in the party scenes the music and laughter from the other unseen room drift in like memories.

Though Rupert Goold’s compelling production is, for the most part, naturalistically played, each act ends with an imposed moment of visual invention a freezing, a fracturing that echo the ideas expressed.

However if you remove the theorizing, much of what is left is familiar family saga stuff. The National reinvigorated Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with their renowned 1992 Stephen Daldry production, but Goold doesn’t quite manage to replicate that here. The play remains a stubborn thing, its fusion of ideas and narrative always feeling a little forced. The Conway daughters in particular are rather thinly drawn and it’s all too easy to reduce their characters to one-word descriptions: the beautiful one, the artistic one, the academic one and the youngest, innocent and good the mechanics of the writing are, at times, too obvious and Priestley seems almost to be enjoying setting up young dreams only to dash them.

Some superb acting helps to counter these difficulties and to make the production compelling despite its length. The whole ensemble is strong, especially when required to age convincingly for the second act, something most of them achieve. The smoke-throated Francesca Annis makes a formidable matriarch, unable to hide her disappointment that some of her children have not lived up to her ambitions for them, and Paul Ready is also quietly impressive as older brother Alan, with his slight stammer and his ever present pipe, content to live an uneventful life even if it means being scorned by his mother. It is Alan who gets to act as Priestley’s mouthpiece, explaining his ideas on time to Kay, consoling her at a point in life when all seems impossible.

Both the magical mirror sequence that ends Act Two and Goold’s striking coda, with the characters caught up in their very own dance to the music of time, feels somewhat tacked on, reiterating rather than adding anything new, garnish on what is an otherwise straight down the line revival, with the grandfather clock tick-tocking in the hall as the Conway family walk (clockwise) into their future.

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