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Time and the Conways

Remember what we once were . . . and what we'd thought we'd be.— Kay
Time and the Conways
Hattie Morahan as Kay
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Rupert Goold takes this difficult play from JB Priestley written in 1937 and gives it the benefit of his inventive and dedicated attention to character. Goold's backstory preparation with the cast who have to play themselves after an interval of 19 years, was well thought out, and an imaginative exercise in dedication which goes some way to explaining the success of this young and talented director. He asked each cast member to write letters in character, to be sent through the post to another member of the cast also in character — one for each of the nineteen years, detailing what was happening to them in the intervening period between acts one and two. This digging deep on character was enhanced by a careful study as to what are the physical effects of aging, whether it's in the more hunched stance, stiffer posture or the increase of jowls under one's chin.

Time and the Conways is not as powerful a melodrama as An Inspector Calls, which is about to return to London this autumn in the same production directed by Stephen Daldry and which has been playing continuously in the West End or on tour since 1992. However, Time and the Conwayshas much to say about how people change as their hopes and fears are realized or not and has a slower burn which finds me returning to its multi-stranded theme.

In Act One set in 1919 at the end of the First World War both Conway boys, Alan (Paul Ready) and Robin (Mark Dexter) are, in the words of their mother (Francesca Annis) "quite safe." The Conways are full of optimism for the future. They hope that the beautiful Hazel (Lydia Leonard) will make a brilliant marriage. In Act Two set in 1938 things have not changed for the better. The family are in debt, one daughter has died and there is a series of failed or failing relationships and career unhappiness. Here I would quarrel with Priestley's despair. I find it hard to believe that any family could be quite so unlucky. In Act Three, we return to 1919, and this act is the one most widely cut by the director, but here Kay has the knowledge of the future. As Mrs Conway talks about what she would like to happen, Kay is obviously deeply troubled by her foresight.

The play has been designed using information from Priestley's first production, so whilst it is undoubtedly authentic, there is nothing in the set which is innovative. But the director has inserted two pieces of choreography at the end of each of Acts Two and Three which evocatively convey the passing of time and the possibility of time having more than one parallel dimension. As Alan says to Kay in the Second Act when he discusses how people exist not at a single point in time, he says, "the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time."

The ensemble acting is exquisitely nuanced with the characters aging expertly and believably. Hattie Morahan as Kay holds the play together as the sister who returns with knowledge of the soured future. She is herself 19 years on, stiff, abrasive, jerky, a chain smoking journalist after a long term relationship with a married man has ended. "He was married" she states full of sad lament. This is compared with the relaxed young writer we saw in 1919. Francesca Annis is the dislikeable Mrs Conway who clashes with her socialist and blue stocking daughter Madge, embittered by the intervening time and played crisply by Fenella Woolgar as disappointed and unappreciated, aware of her mother's favouritism and dislike. Somewhat oddly, there was something about Paul Ready's quietly observing Alan which reminded me of Goold himself which also struck my companion.

Note: I do not want to spoil the story for anyone and to detract from Goold's inventive act endings by describing them in detail.

Time and the Conways
Written by JB Priestley
Directed by Rupert Goold

Starring: Francesca Annis, Hattie Morahan
With: Paul Ready, Fenella Woolgar, Mark Dexter, Lydia Leonard, Faye Castelow, Lisa Jackson, Alistair Petrie, Adrian Scarborough
Design: Laura Hopkins
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Music and Sound: Adam Cork
Video Design: Fifty Nine Productions Ltd
Movem,ent: Scott Ambler
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with two 15 minute interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 27th July 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th May 2009 performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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