Review – Time and the Conways – National Theatre

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On Tuesday I had the good fortune of getting to see the National Theatre’s production of Time and the Conways for a mere £10. It had received a positive review from the West End Whingers, but its 3 hour running time – and, admittedly, cost – had put me off. However, with an offer for £10 tickets in hand, I decided to overcome my reservations and go see this show.

I’m glad I made the effort: for all its running time is longer than I can usually manage on school nights, Time and the Conways is a good show, despite having a director who apparently didn’t quite trust the words to make good theater and a second act that suffers from some seriously ham-fisted acting.

The family’s evolving relationships, shown in act-
length flashes (1919, 1939, and again 1919) were fascinating. Though it was heartbreaking to see people who seemed to love each other (act 1) so much brought down by spite and ego in the second act (1939), it made the third act ring more truthfully. There may have been a moment in time when all of the members of the family enjoyed each other’s company and were full of hope for the future; but once the lens of the future and its failings was put into your eyes, it was impossible to see the joys of the final 1919 scene looking rosy (and a good thing too as it was practically dripping with sap in Act 1). In fact, 1919 had the painful nostalgia I associate with looking at cherry blossoms in Japan – an appreciation for lovely things whose time will soon pass. And birthday girl Kay (Hattie Morahan)’s vision of what the future will hold for her family … I couldn’t tell if she was suffering because of what she knew or because she was wanting to undo it.

The shortcomings of this play were twofold. First, at times the acting was just “too too.” I couldn’t decide if Joan (Lisa Jackson) was pretending to be a person who liked to act like she was in a movie (as it seemed in Act One) or if the script actually called for her to make her character look like a silly numpty who had to overdramatize her feelings; at any rate, it was painful to watch. I also disliked most of the cast’s “aged” versions of themselves in act 2. Madge (Fenella Woolgar) had gone all floppy and slouchy, while Kay, who’d spent all of Act 1 being luminous and agile, suddenly looked like she had a pole thrust at an angle from her shoulderblades and hipbones and was attempting to convey 40 by standing at an angle and holding a cigarette. Adrian Scarborough, as Ernest Beevers, was, however, perfect as a short bully who had come into money as he had always hoped – but I found the evolution of his wife, the former Hazel Conway (Lydia Leonard). Perhaps his character had, in fact, changed very little, but I couldn’t fathom Hazel as the broken creature of act 2. (I think Priestly is to blame on this point, mostly.)

More annoying, however, was the director (Rupert Goold)’s ridiculous showy “end of act” moments that treated the audience as if they had no ability to think and process the words of the script and possibly had only ever seen movies before. The end of act 2 “mirror dance,” in which (I think) Kay attempts to convey the concept of living in multiple times simultaneously, was an ugly bit of choreography and wholly unnecessary. Worse than this was the end of act 3, in which Kay and her brother Alan (Paul Ready) do another sort of dance with video projections of themselves. I frequently loathe relying on cinematic innovations for theater; I feel like it shows a lack of trust in the text and is, in fact, a way of trying to do something in a simple and dull way rather than letting theatrical magic (the suspension of disbelief) take place. Much like A.I., this play would have been so much better if it had just stopped at the proper ending place instead of sitting there and beating us on the head to make sure we understood what Priestly was trying to do. Shame on you, Rupert Goold – just because you have the budget and the equipment doesn’t mean you should do it.

This was, however, probably only 5 or so minutes of the entire play, so I think I can give it a recommendation overall. A bit overproduced, as shows at the National sometimes are, but Time and the Conways is a strong script that has performances (and a story) strong enough to compensate for its shortcomings. I was lucky to get tickets for £10, but I think it would certainly be worth paying more to see it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009. It continues through August 16th.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Time and the Conways – National Theatre”

  1. Exit, Pursued by a Bear Says:

    I’m glad you (kind of) enjoyed this. Its very much piece of its time, and therefore written in that kind of style. Yes, it appears a bit heavy-handed to modern eyes and ears, but thats no reason never to have it produced again. What it IS is solidly crafted and dealing with one of Priestley’s preoccupations (time) in a thought provoking way. the performances do tend to tip towards caricature occasionally, its true – but then so do real people!

    Nobody had a bad word for the Stephen Daldry production of “An Inspector Calls” which deals with much the same kind of ideas – probably because it was directed with considerable flair and everyone was too riveted by how it looked to realise that, essentially, the dialogue is just as stodgy as the rest of Priestley’s plays. The only real difference is that Time and The Conways has been staged in a much more “traditional” way, so more focus is directed onto the text and the characterisation.

    I share your dislike of the daft added on bit at the end of Act 3 however. Too clever for its own good and really, really unnecesary.

    What intrigued me about the production was the prominence given to the full length portrait of the woman in the white dress hanging on the wall. Its positioned and lit in a way that its obviously meant to stand out – yet I could find no reference to it in the programme and two emailed requestd for information about it to the National have gone completely ignored. I wonder what it means?

  2. Dizzy Says:

    Really don’t agree with your view of the ‘end of act’ scenes, which I thought worked really well as they elevated the play from being purely a piece of period drawing room drama into something more imaginatively theatrical.

    Not sure there’s much the director can do with Hazel’s character; it seems to me that Priestley’s character development here was simply unconvincing.

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