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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at National Theatre (Lyttelton)


  Lydia Leonard, Mark Dexter and Faye Castelow/Ph: Manuel Harlan

Monstrous, self-serving mothers seem to be the current theatrical fad.

In playing host to Tracy Letts's August: Osage County, the National introduced us to Beverley Watson, the materfamilias from hell. In the recent revival of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, it's a selfish mother (unseen throughout the play) who brings misery to an unmarried daughter while another feckless mother, again, neither seen nor heard, dominates Polly Stenhams Tusk Tusk, latterly at the Royal Court.

The latest mother to cast a long shadow over the lives of her offspring is Mrs. Conway (Francesca Annis) in J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways -  handsomely revived at the Lyttelton in a production directed by Rupert Goold that attempts to do for this stalwart 1937 drama what Stephen Daldry did for the same author's An Inspector Calls  in 1992.

Like An Inspector Calls, Dangerous Corner and I Have Been Here Before , Time and the Conways is one of Priestley's "time" plays in which he intriguingly mixes and distorts the past, the present and the future to create a psychological sense of dejà vu.

It begins in 1919, in the living room of a large detatched house in the industrial Northern town of Newlingham. Kay Conway (Hattie Morahan), an aspiring author, has turned 21. A game of charades is in progress, in the course of which we meet all the members of the Conway family, except for Mr. Conway, who has recently drowned.

Apart from Kay and Mrs. Conway, there's Madge (Fenella Woolgar) an avid socialist who takes herself extremely seriously, Hazel (Lydia Leonard), the prettiest of the sisters, and Carol (Faye Castelow), the youngest and most naturally wholesome of the group. They have two brothers, Alan (Paul Ready), a decent enough, though unassertive and unprepossing clerk, and, in complete contrast, Robin (Mark Dexter) a dashing R.A.F officer newly returned from the war.

There are three other characters, all of whom become inextricably involved with the future of the Conways. The full extent of that involvement is shown in Act Two, which takes place in 1937, and is far darker than the events of the first act. Now, eighteen years on, every one of the Conways, with the possible exception of Alan, is dysfunctional and deeply unhappy.

The promise, the hope, the aspirations and the optimism of the first act are in tatters as the harsh realities, domestic as well as economic, bring nothing but despair and disappointment.

Act Three reverts back to 1919. The party is over and the guests begin to leave. As Priestley gradually sows the seeds of the family's ultimate destruction, Kay appears to have a disturbing premonition of what all their lives are going to become.

Playing with time was hardly new to the theater in 1937. Indeed, three years earlier Moss Hart and George Kaufmann had done just that in Merrily We Roll Along, a poignant drama which goes backwards in time beginning with the weary cynicism of its middle- aged hero (a playwright), and ends with the youthful hope and optimism with which he began his career.

Both plays attempt to show the corrosive effects of time and and its curdling effect on one's dreams.

Priestley, through the mouth of Alan Conway, intellectualises it thus: "The point is,"he tells his sister Kay, "we're only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are, is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life-all our time will be us, the real you, the real me. And then, perhaps, we'll find ourselves in another time, which is only another kind of dream."

Whether or not you agree with him, Priestley the intellectual is never as effective as Priestley the popular dramatist. At his best his plays are hugely entertaining and Time and the Conways is no exception.

Rupert Goold being Rupert Goold, embellishes, with striking effect, the ends of Acts Two and Three, with a visual interpretation of the author's thesis on the transcience of time. But it's hardly as endemic to this production as Stephen Daldry's concept of An Inspector Calls was to his.

Just regard it as a bonus rather than a concept integral to the text, and enjoy it together with this fine ensemble cast, Laura Hopkins's sets and Mark Henderson's lighting.

Together they provide a solid evening's entertainment. 


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