Rupert Goold’s National Theatre debut comes in the form of JB Priestley’s three-act play which asks unanswerable questions about the extent of our ability to control our own future.
Priestley’s interest in the nature of time fuelled the writing of this play in 1937, in which he explores the idea that our present and our future exist simultaneously, rather than one being an unalterable consequence of the other. He wraps up this notion in the story of the wealthy Conway family, whom we meet in 1919 as daughter Kay is celebrating her 21st birthday with a night of parlour games in the family home, along with her mother and siblings. Life is rosy; son Robin has just left the army and returned home, and each of the four Conway daughters has reason to believe in a bright future. Only their bookish, stuttering brother Alan (Paul Ready) seems fixed in the present, rather than yearning for the rewards of the future. But at the end of act one, Hattie Morahan’s Kay has a vision of the life that awaits them, and it is considerably less palatable than they like to imagine.
Time And The Conways is very much an ensemble piece and each of the actors shines as they make the most of Priestley’s witty, acerbic dialogue. Lydia Leonard is a delightfully snobbish Hazel, Fenella Woolgar the principled Madge, Mark Dexter the confident charmer Robin and Faye Castelow the youthful, unaffected Carol. Francesca Annis as the self-indulgent matriarch Mrs Conway comes into her own in act two, as the family, now 19 years older, gather for a tense reunion, out of necessity rather than the desire to see each other. In Mrs Conway’s showdown with her children, Annis savours every razor-sharp put-down as she rails against the disappointments her children have served up.
Kay is the focal point of the piece, the vehicle for Priestley to express his theories on time. Morahan plays her as an earnest, serious woman who, in 1919, seems to bear a self-imposed weight on her shoulders which comes from her fervent desire to write novels. In 1938, however, she is bitter, terse and full of regret. She stands defensively, arms crossed as a barrier to her family, as she tries to stem the dam of pent-up frustration.
As the play returns to 1919 in act three, the jovial parlour games take on a certain poignancy as we know the family’s fate, and so – she thinks – does Kay. But is it fate? Are the decisions that lead them to a bitter future set in stone or could they take a different path to another, happier parallel world?
Goold takes no liberties with Priestley’s structure or text, and the action for the most part is played out on Laura Hopkins’s period drawing room set. But the experimental leanings of the director flourish at the end of each act, when he eerily suggests the theory of time that Priestley studied, leading to a highly inventive, chilling conclusion.