This week saw a visit to the Lyttleton at the National Theatre for the first preview of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways. Starting off in 1919 at a birthday party, we meet the Conways, a rich family infused with hope for the future: the Great War is over, the sons have returned home safely and potential love matches abound for the numerous sisters. This act is sumptuously mounted, the costumes are fantastic and the company do a great job of introducing a sense of real decadence and loucheness, exuding the confidence that their upper-class lives safely back in place after the wartime turmoil. Francesca Annis as the mother of the family excels here, ruling her roost with a witty demeanour, as does Faye Castelow as the youngest daughter, a bubble of positive energy in primrose yellow. Annis also dealt extremely well with her scarf becoming attached to one of her daughter’s rings for over a minute!
Act II then skips 20 years into the future to see how the passage of time has affected the Conways. With this leap forward, all the actors are called on to really deliver sufficiently nuanced performances to convey the passage of time, and with the aid of some impressive make-up, they pretty much all succeed in this. Lydia Leonard and Hattie Morahan in particular stood out for me, both of them reaching deep to show the frustrations that inter-war life has imposed on them. That said, the acting all-around was of a high quality, although some nerves were in evidence with a couple of fluffed lines (something I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed at the National before).
The final act then returns to where we left off at the end of Act I and we see the culmination of the storylines that started, but with the knowledge of how they will ultimately turn out, 20 years later.
I really enjoyed the play: the time-shift gave a really interesting depth to all of the characters as we saw so much of their personal histories, and this gave the performers a real chance to flex their acting muscles. What I was not expecting was the little codas added onto the end of each act. Act I saw time freezing and the set seemingly dissolving, Act II had an interpretative dance number which was actually quite moving and then Act III had the longest one, a complex dance with speech replete with video installation. This final one was also quite moving as the characters were able to interact and dance with their digital other selves, linking the two time periods neatly. The only problem with these bits was that they did not really fit into the play as it was presented to us. They seemed almost added on as an afterthought which, whilst patently not true, is a real shame especially for Morahan and Paul Ready who perform the final coda with the dancing and clearly put a lot into it.
All this does make for a rather lengthy experience (I think around 3 hours) and I do wonder if any changes will be made before the play opens properly, although I hope not. I did not feel that is was overlong, I was certainly not bored at any point and I was thoroughly engaged with all of the Conways. This was a very interesting night out, and I quite liked that fact that the choices made in presenting the material were not the predictable ones.