With its jolly music and animated chatter, the opening of Time and the Conways perfectly distils the sense of optimism of the period immediately following the first world war, which is when the play is notionally set. Yet, this is one of J.B Priestley’s time plays, where the assumption of linear time is disbanded in favour of a more static state: a time in which all things co-exist. It is this conflict between how we and the protagonists understand their movement through time which is the heartbeat of both this play and the essence of Jemima Levick’s stylish production.
The first scene portrays the recently widowed Mrs Conway and her six children at a family party to celebrate Kay Conway’s 21st birthday. The family – with the notable exception of son Alan – are full of joy and optimism and are ready to embrace a future free from war. Ti Green’s set is a graceful yet rather tragic recreation of a grand house which has faded to a threadbare grey, juxtaposed against the jolly music it effortlessly reinforces what might have been.
The second scene jumps forwards by 18 years to show the family in an entirely different shade. Downtrodden by life and circumstance they teeter on the brink of a second war. It is here, in their fragility, that we also see their humanity. The mother who has frittered away her money and whose narcissistic selfishness exposes her ugly side; one daughter has become disillusioned with the difficulties life has thrown at her, while her formerly glamorous sister is transformed into a browbeaten wife. Finally there is Madge, who has lost the passionate socialism of her youth and has become a hard-faced and strict school teacher brimming with bitterness and vitriol for her family.
The final scene is set on the same evening as the first. Later in the night when the party atmosphere has subsided the divisions in the family start to show. This unlinear depiction of time works to convey Priestly’s thesis that ‘at this moment, or any moment, we’re only cross-sections of our real selves.”
The pacing of the production captures a sense of the inevitable fate of the family, while preventing any involvement. We are powerless to stop the wheels of time changing the degradation of each family member, as they are already set in motion.
The performances are somewhat extravagant and melodramatic which while obviously being a concious stylistic choice, is quite distancing and makes it harder to be drawn into the Conway world. Yet, once the framework of the characters is established, we are allowed to see deeper into them as people, and by the middle scene the masks of the characters started to drop and their stories become more human and engrossing.
Richard Conlon’s insighful performance as Alan is a particular highlight, and his journey from sadness towards contentment is a joy to watch, providing an emotional anchor to the production.
Priestley’s play is so expansive and complete it demands subtle treatment to uncover the finer points without labouring them. There were moments – such as when future and/or former selves were projected across the back of the stage – which felt unnecessary and points where I longed for a more minimal interpretation, a chance to ponder on the more engrained philosophy. Yet, the most striking themes, those of bitterness, thwarted ambition and hope – are neatly uncovered in Levick’s imaginative production, combining the fragility of human nature comfortably with Priestly’s meditation on time, and in doing so provoking thoughts and questions which endure long after the curtain call.