JB Priestley’s play Time and the Conways uses tropes of family drama in a metaphysical exploration of time and the universe. Will you be OK with the decay?
The first time we meet the Conways, they’re picking from a pile of clothes, wigs, and false noses on the floor, preparing for a game of charades. The war has just ended, and everyone’s managed to come home with all of their limbs intact. It’s Kay’s birthday; she’s 20, and she’s working on her second novel, having destroyed her first. The mood is festive. People are happy. Mother is singing.
The last time we see the Conways is just a few hours later. Kay is distraught, haunted by portents of doom that she does not, and cannot, comprehend. This is because she – and, by extension, the audience – has travelled through time.
19 years in the future, things aren’t looking so good. Nobody’s happy. Some people are dead. The family fortune has been squandered, and the one man who could save the day is taking great delight in denying salvation.
As one of J.B. Priestley’s “Time Plays”, Time and the Conways treats the concept of time itself as a sort of supervillain. Of course, to the audience, it’s obvious that this family is doomed simply because the Conways, and the people with whom they interact, are variously selfish, vindictive, sadistic and irrational. But to Kay, devastated on her birthday, it’s all time’s fault. Had time not been allowed to exert its malign influence, everything would be alright. Everyone would still be happy, together, and alive.
It’s likely, though, that were you to take a snapshot from two disparate days of any family’s existence, things would look pretty grim. It’s up to eldest son Alan – beautifully played with a painful quiet dignity by Edward Harrison – to explain J.W Dunne’s concept of time, which he does so through a touching reading of Blake.
Dunne proposed that all time is happening simultaneously. Though human consciousness is only capable of comprehending linear time, in actuality, the past, the present and the future are one. In the play, Alan espouses the idea that individual days are not representative of entire lives. In this way, he’s able to cope with the traumas that drive the rest of the Conways apart.
At the end of Act II, we see the Conways at their lowest. Things feel impossibly bleak, with no light at the end of the tunnel for anyone. Yet before the curtain falls, Alan gently explains his theory, placing the drama in a wider context. It’s a powerful moment that becomes even more powerful when the net is cast wider. Time and the Conways takes place after one terrible war, and before an even more terrible war. Are we to conclude that humanity is doomed as a result of these two prolonged periods of horror? Alan would say, no. Not at all. Then he’d light his pipe, filling the theatre with a mildly pungent yet comforting sweetness.
One of the best things that could be said about this production of Time and the Conways is that the Conways, with all their in-jokes, squabbles, pointed looks and unspoken histories, truly feel like a family. When they’re at each others throats, the effect can be harrowing. But in their more tender moments, when the Conways are just there for each other, it’s genuinely affecting.
For this we can thank the cast, of course, who are excellent without exception. Special mention has to go to Pascale Burgess, who excels at portraying Madge as both a naive young socialist and an embittered middle age schoolmistress. Equally remarkable is Scott Turnbull’s Ernest, who we first see as a bumbling and awkward young entrepreneur, and later as a slimy and sadistic success. At once channeling the writhing discomfort of Jon Richardson and the smarmy superiority of Pete Campbell, it’s enough to make your skin crawl.
Louise Jameson all but steals the show as a the matriarchal Mrs Conway. Indeed, the moment at which she quietly, desperately urged her borderline alcoholic son to take a drink, as if to validate her own coping mechanism, was amongst the most painful moments in a play that was frequently agonising.
Best of all, though, was Sian Clifford’s Kay, with whom the audience are invited to travel through time and space. Clutching her notebook like a protective talisman, she is convincingly haunted not just by the past, but also by the future.
This is a chilling play with bite and bile, but also a pleading, bleeding, beating heart. Through curious set design, the ghosts of the past regularly gaze mournfully through a window at the back of the stage. If you look hard enough through this window, you can almost make out the same room in which the action takes place, abandoned and decaying.
But thanks to Alan, I’m OK with my decay.
All photos ©2014 Nottingham Playhouse.