Whilst in London last week for a lunatic hour of post-midnight plinthing, I went to see the production of J.B.Priestley’s 1937 play Time and the Conways at the National Theatre. I can heartily recommend it.
The play’s gimmick is well-known. The first act takes place in 1919, when, for comfortably middle-class Conways, everything is marvellous. The soldiers are coming home and life seems full of promise. The second act goes forward to the thirties, when everything has gone wrong; schemes have failed, lives are unfulfilled and, as one of the characters says, it is ‘just before the next war’. The third act goes back to 1919, to make clear how the seeds of failure were there all along.
Priestley blames the middle-class for its own downfall. That first act is full of casual snobberies and carelessnesses. The controlling mother (brilliantly played by Francesca Annis) is sublimely unaware of her own selfishness. The returning war hero (an airman) is dashingly shallow. Spoilt by his mother, he feels the world owes him a marvellous living, and assumes that the motor trade will bring him a fortune.
The most sympathetic characters are the young women. Kay is an aspiring writer in the first act; the actress Hattie Morahan does wonders with the part, getting across both her ambition and her vulnerability. She has written the script for the charades that her family are acting, and bit by bit we see her plans cheerfully ruined by the others – but she accepts and compromises, which will be the pattern of her life. Fenella Woolgar plays Madge, the socialist idealist whose chance of a relationship with a man is crushed by an unkind word from her mother. She will become a schoolteacher, and the actress makes it poignantly clear how much her emotional life has narrowed over time.
Priestley famously had some rather half-baked ideas about time (all times exist at once, and we can get sudden intimations of the future or echoes of the past). These ideas probably helped him to write the play, and luckily they don’t intrude too much. The director, Rupert Goold, has felt it necessary to pay tribute to the ideas by putting in non-naturalistic set-pieces at the ends of acts. One of these is terrific – as she looks in the mirror, the character Kay suddenly multiplies, fragmented into a whole line of separate selves – but the others are unnecessary. The strength of the play (and of the production) is in the naturalistic interplay between the characters, but maybe neither Priestley nor his director trust the essential material quite enough. So the gimmicky bits could be cut – but otherwise I don’t think one could hope for a better production of this very intelligent account of what went wrong for the middle classes between the wars.