The Theatreguide.London Review
Time and the Conways
Lyttelton Theatre Spring-Summer 2009
J. B. Priestley's 1937 drama follows a formula he used frequently, in staging as fact something we later learn may have been a dream, a foreshadowing, or just one possible train of events yet to be played out.
Here, we meet a well-off family in 1919, presented in all their shallowness and triviality, but also their attractive innocence and optimism. We then jump forward nineteen years, and I'm not giving anything away when I say that things have not worked out as their younger selves had hoped - there wouldn't be a play here if they had.
Everyone in 1938 has failed to achieve their ambitions, everyone is bitter and resentful of the others, and all their hopes and happiness are barely remembered.
One character sadly asks who the real her is, the one back then or the one now, and the only hope Priestley can offer, through the most philosophical member of the family, is that our identities are the products of our entire lives. One self does not displace another, but both are pieces of a mosaic that includes the happy and sad.
That's meant to be a reassuring message, but dramaturgy requires Priestley to emphasise the ironic collapse of the 1919 idyll - to do that, he actually returns to the past in the last act, making us revisit the earlier characters with knowledge of their fate - and so the dominant effect of the play is likely to be depressing.
Compounding that is a general stateliness of pace that is not helped by a too-often plodding production by Rupert Goold. While there are several moments when the hard-working cast (who each have to play two very different versions of the same character) capture the fire of either joy or anguish, there are also stretches of rather strained and unconvincing playfulness or grumbling.
Particularly in the dark second act, you are likely to feel 'OK. I get the point. They're unhappy. Now get on with it.'
Acting honours for the evening go to Francesca Annis as the mother, trivial social butterfly in the past but having reached the point in the future where she no longer bothers to censor her real feelings, flinging cruel barbs - some disguised as dropped bricks - at everyone in sight.
Hattie Morahan holds our sympathy as the daughter whose premonition the flash-forward may be, and who therefore carries the greatest emotional burden. Paul Ready provides quiet strength as the son whose complete lack of ambition protects him from most regrets, and Adrian Scarborough has one strong scene as a critical outsider.
Though its story has a dreamlike quality, the play's mode is solidly realistic. Director Goold, unable to liven things up much, has interpolated a couple of choreographed-movement sequences that are quite lovely but have little to do with the style or meanings of the rest of the play.
Despite the strong performances at its centre, this production falls victim to the museum-piece revival syndrome that the NT is usually able to avoid. The attraction will be the opportunity to see a rarely-done Priestley, not what has been done with it.
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