Time and the Conways

Fri 9th – Sat 17th March 2012

reviews

Alexander Stone

at 10:25 on 10th Mar 2012

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'Time and the Conways', arguably J. B. Priestley’s finest in his series of ‘time plays’, is a tour de force of interwar Britain. Priestley saw a generation of talent, and a real hope of peace, wasted by class divides and complacency. Through the medium of hindsight, Priestley sharply disciplines the characters, and serves to warn us all against superficiality, and shows us what happens when we do not learn from history. In this production, The Bristol Old Vic theatre school enact a stellar performance that will keep you entertained leave you with a furrowed brow.

This is a long play, coming in at three hours, spread over three acts and two intervals. It uses these acts to move between 1919, where a well to do family are celebrating the end of the war with much “sillyness”, to 1939 with the family near destitute and plagued by an intense sense of missed opportunities, before returning to 1919 where Priestley dishes out a healthy dose of his unrelenting hindsight and dramatic irony. The play dislikes about half of its characters, the other half it tolerates. Unlike 'An Inspector Calls' for example, Priestly uses a number of different characters as his mouthpiece, and in the final act we witness each of the family condemn themselves in turn.

This production stays close to the original, with no script changes or contemporary updating of the period. The set design wonderfully evokes a big 1920s family home, that also ages twenty years when panels in the three walls are pushed in just before the interval. Thanks to the cosy Circomedia theatre, I got a great feeling of closeness to the family, and their individuality felt that much more real and impacting. The production team also seem to have adopted Priestley’s brand of overt, unsubtle moralising, with characters' voices echoing ethereally every time they say something transcendent.

The Bristol Old Vic theatre school is clearly a cut above your average student performance, and 'Time and the Conways' was no exception. All of the cast have many years of acting experience under their belts and it shows. Each one looked confident and at ease on stage, and conveyed real depth of character without slipping into caricature, even though that would have been easy with this play.

I should warn potential theatregoers that this is not a light-hearted play. It takes itself very seriously, and expects you to do the same. If you are ready for three hours of an intense post-mortem of Britain in the interwar years, and open to learning something about yourself and humanity, you couldn’t do much better than this.

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Mark Weegmann

at 12:11 on 10th Mar 2012

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Split into three acts, ‘Time and the Conways’ presents a non-linear journey through the interwar period of the matriarchal family of the Conways. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School put on a proficient production with a large, very convincing cast and an interacting set. It brilliantly depicts the family’s struggle with unrealised aspirations, and degrading superiority complexes. With act one set in the optimistic post-war Britain (1919) of a young family on the right side of history and full of potential, the warm and lively atmosphere seems alien to that of the second act. Set now, in a world riddled with repeated mistakes and on the verge of a second world war, the family too reflect this evaporated promise of a progressive future. The family reunite exactly twenty years later for a bitterly uncomfortable “business meeting”, to attempt a restoration of financial stability. The audience is exposed to the breakdown of the character’s lives and familial relationships. The third act returns to 1919 to pick up from the end of act one, displaying how the seeds of destruction were apparent in the previously idyllic family life, but also showing how blinded they were to it.

The title does perhaps best summarise the message, although perhaps only so in retrospect. The passing of “time”, as so lucidly expressed in this play, leaves the audience somewhat thoughtful. You are forced to reflect on a person’s life trajectory and how unwittingly that can be shaped. The family demonstrate how even when life appears to be so fruitful and hopeful, nothing is set in stone. Throughout the play, the family adopt an air of prestige and superiority in their outlook, making their demise easier to swallow. Status and power are temporary; impressions and sentiments however, last. This is well communicated through the technique of jumping into the future and then back again, this dynamic adding perspective and insight onto the events of the play. The egotistical matriarch and her numerous offspring did not predict their decline from the first act, with its light-hearted game of charades, into the second, which showed their segregated and conflicting lives.

The set literally came alive in a dramatic end to the first act. It is clear that much time and effort was placed on the set, costume, and other atmospheric techniques. These greatly enhanced the performance, adding

historical context, and intensity to emotions. The acting too was of a professional standard and the dialogue was engrossing. Parts of the performance were slightly too overt in spelling out the key themes, but this did not drastically detract from the performance as a whole. The humour and slightness of what could have been quite a difficult story enriched the message, giving the right balance of depth and entertainment. Overall, this is a production which I would highly recommend with its vibrant story, persuasively performed and produced.

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Comments

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School WORLD CLASS TRAINING; 14th Mar 2012; 13:53:37

J.B. Priestley’s 1937 ‘Time Play’ has some fairly big existential fish to fry, enquiring as it does into the nature of human perception and experience, indeed of time itself. Alongside these lofty interrogations, however, ‘Time and the Conways’ also works, splendidly, as a family drama, stuffed with rich characters, thoughtfully-developed relationships, whiplash dialogue and a gripping sense of the vagaries of time. Happily, the trainee thesps at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School add to all of a brilliantly-executed character drama, rich in comedy and tragedy, elegantly costumed and staged and sensitively directed by Jenny Stephens.

The Conways are a well-heeled Yorkshire clan who spend the first act celebrating the end of World War I at their handsome family home in the industrial city of Newlingham. The iron-willed widow and materfamilias Mrs Conway (played with a fine hauteur and imperiousness by Stephanie Racine) is celebrating having her six children under one roof again – daughters Hazel, Carol, Madge and Kay, and the returning wartime heroes Alan and Robin.

Characters are strongly, though never simplistically, fleshed out. Kay, celebrating her 21st birthday, has pretensions to a literary career; Hazel is the beautiful, vivacious belle of the family, and the toast of Newlingham’s marriageable men; Madge is an earnest left-wing firebrand who hopes to banish the old order and its social divisions. Alan, the eldest, is reserved, awkward, inward-looking; Robin is the darling of the family, indulged and, thanks to that, vain and casually indifferent; Carol, the youngest, is the family’s endlessly warm-hearted, playful entertainer.

At the end of the Act (which also welcomes visitors including Gerald, family friend and solicitor; Beevers, a young man on the make; and Joan, a sweet-hearted girl whose feelings for Robin are quickly reciprocated), Kay slips into a reverie… in which she sees a premonition (Act Two) of how the family might turn out, 18 years hence, the small faults and vanities now magnified into life-fracturing problems, bringing with them drunkenness, divorce, penury and estrangement. A sombre vision, in short… so that when we return, in Act Three, to that same 1919 birthday party, we now look at the characters with new eyes, seeing the seeds of their future downfall.

A brilliant cast brings these characters to ample life. Christopher Hancock’s Alan is outstanding: hesitant, doomed to a quiet, shuffling anonymity behind his gilded brother Robin, himself realised with a brilliant cocksure arrogance and casual cruelty by Daniel Wilde. Madeleine Leslay’s Hazel has a beautiful, tinkling elegance and swanlike grace that makes her Act Two downfall at the hands of a cruel indifferent husband (Paul Holloway’s Beevers) all the more tragic; and Suzie Preece’s Kay is the family’s intelligent, thoughtful moral centre.

Perhaps the pick of them all, though, is Francesca Bailey’s Joan Helford, whose timid, playful grace turns into a pinched, tired sadness under Robin’s indifference and fecklessness. Proof of how rich is every single characterisation comes in the second Act, when the undoing of each and every one of these lives is as captivating as it is painful. This insight into a possible future then makes Act Three, with its return to 1919’s carefree ebullience, a fascinating and foreboding watch.

A hugely impressive ensemble performance that mixes immense energy and sensitivity, thick, textured characterisation and finely-observed period detail. (Steve Wright)

Copyright Steve Wright 2012

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