01 May 2009

Time and the Conways - National Theatre - Friday 1st May 2009


In the first act we meet the Conway family; Mrs Conway, her daughters Kay, Hazel, Madge and Carol, and her sons Alan and Robin. Three other characters appear: Gerald, a solicitor; Joan, a young woman in love with Robin; and Ernest, a young, ambitious entrepreneur of a lower social class. The family celebrates the end of the Great War and look forward to a future of fame, prosperity and fulfilled dreams. In a pensive moment when Kay is left alone on stage she seems to slip into a reverie and has a vision of the future...

Act Two plunges us into the shattered lives of the Conways almost twenty years on. Gathering in the same room where they were celebrating in Act One, we see how their lives have failed in different ways. Robin has become a dissolute travelling salesman, estranged from his wife Joan, Madge has failed to realise her socialist dreams, Carol is dead, Hazel is married to the wealthy but sadistic Ernest. Kay has succeeded to a certain extent as an independent woman but has not realised her dreams of novel writing. Worst of all, Mrs Conway's fortune has been squandered, the family home is to be sold and the children's inheritance is gone. As the act unfolds, resentments and tensions explode and the Conways are split apart by misery and grief. Only Alan, the quietest of the family, seems to possess a quiet calm. In the final scene of the Act, Alan and Kay are left on stage and, as Kay expresses her misery Alan suggests to her that the secret of life is to understand its true reality - that the perception that Time is linear and that we have to grab and take what we can before we die is false. If we can see Time as eternally present, that at any given moment we are seeing only 'a cross section of ourselves', then we can transcend our suffering and find no need to hurt or conflict with other people.

Act Three takes us back to 1919, some seconds after the end of Act One, and we see how the seeds of the downfall of the Conways were being sown even then. Ernest is snubbed by Hazel and Mrs Conway, Gerald's budding love for Madge is destroyed by the snobbery of Mrs Conway in another moment of social arrogance, Alan is rejected by Joan who becomes betrothed to Robin. As the children gather at the end of the play to foretell their future Kay has a moment of memory of the vision of Act Two we have seen unfold. Disturbed, she steps out of the party and the play ends with Alan promising that he will be able to tell her something in the future which will help her.

Mrs Conway :Francesca Annis
Carol Conway : Faye Castelow
Robin Conway : Mark Dexter
Joan Helford : Lisa Jackson
Hazel Conway : Lydia Leonard
Kay Conway : Hattie Morahan
Gerald Thornton : Alistair Petrie
Alan Conway : Paul Ready
Ernest Beevers : Adrian Scarborough
Madge Conway : Fenella Woolgar

Production credits:
Director: Rupert Goold
Designer: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Music and Sound: Adam Cork
Video Design: Fifty-Nine Productions Ltd
Movement Director: Scott Ambler

Oooh, I do love a good Priestley! The Good Companions is one of my Desert Island Books, and its good to see that his plays seem to be undergoing rather a renaissance of late (by which I mean the last 15 year or so) - one hopes that this means theatregoers are increasingly demanding good, solidly crafted plays which actually make you think once more, rather than some of the shite around these days. Both Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls have both been put back before audiences and received good reviews (I saw both) so I was really looking forward to seeing this. I'd heard good things about it and I'm pleased to say that its tightening up in preview and seems to have picked up quite a lot of pace since the West End Whingers turned their steely gaze upon it.

On the face of it, this play seems a typical Priestley drawing-room-type affair (smug, solidly middle to upper class family all being somewhat self-congratulatory until fate throws a spanner into the clockwork) and doesn't really "go anywhere" until the start of Act 2. But once it does get going, its a real look-through-your-fingers roller coaster ride as everything begins to unravel. The clockwork analogy is very apt as this is, again, one of Priestley's "experiments with time", in the vein of Inspector. But this time, there is no outside individual who comes in and disrupts the status quo; this is left to the family themselves who sow the seeds of their own individual destructions.

The slightly dusty air of the play (amazingly, it was written in 1937, a year before the setting of Act 2, which actually refers to the gathering clouds of WW2 - Priestley must have been remarkably prescient) is given a slightly more contemporary edge with tiny inserts at the end of each act. On the basis that this deserves to be a huge hit once it opens, I won't spoil the surprises - although I might be tempted to add them in the Comments section once the run is over. Act 1 ends with a very clever "freeze frame" - the set then fractures into pieces. Act 2's "easter egg" shouldn't really be a surprise if you study the production credits closely enough, where the inclusion of Scott Ambler (formerly with Adventures in Motion Pictures) and several supernumerary cast members, all female, point towards something vaguely choregraphical going to happen. Act 3's ending did, I feel, rather over-egg the pudding, as it was really rather too clever for its own good and felt completely out of touch with the rest of the production. Neither, it must be said, was it completely successful - although perhaps its success depends on exactly where you are sitting. Scrunched up as usual in the second row (cheap seats!), viewing the state from an acute angle, it all looked a bit fuzzy to me. I think the ending has the potential to alienate quite a lot of people and send them home feeling robbed of a cleaner, more traditional ending; I must check the original text to see what should happen. Ironically, given all the technology that must have been used at this point, the whole production nearly came a cropper when the curtain failed to close properly!

Part of the joy of this production is that there isn't a single duff performance on stage. Hattie Morahan was fantastic as Kay, as was Lydia Leonard as Hazel (who had obviously been studying Francesca Annis, her stage mother, fairly closely as she had caught many of her mannerisms in her portrayal). Paul Ready's quiet despair in Act 3 was so real it was quite painful to watch, and Adrian Scarborough deserves special mention for his "worm that turns". Fenella Woolgar was brilliant (you may have seen her several times on TV with David Tennant, not only in Dr. Who, but in He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now). What makes all the performances doubly special is that, essentially, each was playing two people - their character in 1919 and their character again in 1938). One comment I must make (which caused a slight "domestic" at the time with Him Indoors) is that Francesca Annis does seem a little mature to be playing a woman with twenty-something children in an era when the average age of marriage was itself twenty-something (and quite early twenty-something too). This meant that, in Act 2, she had to be practically decrepit, rather resembling Catherine Tate's "Gran" character. In order to give the impression that she had shrunk in stature in Act 2, she wore incredibly high heels in Act 1. That's all well and good, but a) killer heels weren't period and b) if you are going to use this kind of ruse, don't display your non-period shoes to all and sundry by sitting on a stool and kicking your legs out straight in front of you.

The set was very effective - seemingly 20 years went by in the drawing room during the interval, so we got the same set but in a completely different decorative style (obviously the Conways had had a change round of their living quarters at some point because the drawing room was now the dining room, dominated by a huge, shiny black dining suite looking rather like a hearse drawn up in the middle of the floor). One thing I will say is that both sets seemed incredibly sparse - a 1919 drawing room would have been populated with far more knick-knackery, and there would have been more than one painting hung on the wall. This painting didnt move (or fade) for 20 years seemingly, and it was so prominently positioned and lit that I expect it was somehow significant. Not having recognised the picture, I've been reduced to emailing the NT about it - watch this space.

All in all, a thoroughly good night out. I'm sure that it won't appeal to everyone, but I shall be very interested to see what the pro reviews are like when the show opens - as usual I will add a selection below. So, An Inspector Calls - tick. Dangerous Corner - tick. Time and the Conways - tick. How about a revival of When We Are Married or I Have Been Here Before, London producers? Meanwhile, I shall be dusting down my copy of Angel Pavement in order to feed my Priestley fixation.

What the critics said (most of the pro reviews compare this production to that of An Inspector Calls which, I think, is pointless. They're two different plays with two different directors, produced some 12 years apart - which to my mind is like comparing an apple with a potato. Sure, they belong to the same botanical family, but they're two completely different things, so comparison is facile):





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