Saturday, 9 May 2009

Time and the Conways at the National

Why, oh why?



  1. I take it time dragged for you?

  2. Do you mean "Why Time and the Conways?" or "Why Time and the Conways at the National Theatre?"

    If the latter, well it's the same argument as has always raged over staging, say, The Wind in the Willows or Guys and Dolls at the National. Answer: because they put bums on seats. And part of the NT's balancing act (and I'm not saying this is desirable) is funding new plays/esoteric productions out of successful, transferable, 'popular' shows.

    If you simply meant "Why Time and the Conways?" then I'd answer "Why not?" Because it is now a 'thirties play, it is difficult, perhaps, to realise just how radical it was when it was first staged in 1937: radical in terms of its content - examining the failings of human nature in (at that time) contemporary society - and utterly radical in its dramatic structure.

    Years ahead of Alan Ayckbourn, J B Priestly gave the audience a play that was unlike anything they had seen before with the second (middle act) taking the form of a 'flash-forward' to a date twenty years in the future of the first and third acts. By showing us what will become of the members of the Conway family, the playwright gives the audience a unique way of interpreting what they do now.

    Priestley's observations on human nature (in plays like When We Are Married and An Inspector Calls) are valuable insights into '30s society but they are also full of timeless, universal truths. The 'Time Plays' have a special significance both in what they have to say and in the revolutionary theatrical way in which they say it.

    That said, I've seen some appalling productions of Priestley: usually because the cast and director were afraid to play the emotions 'straight' and went for caricature instead or because they lacked the courage to be daring - as in Stephen Daldry's celebrated production of An Inspector Calls.

    Sadly, if the critics are to be believed, the NT production is not that good. A pity, Priestley deserves better and the theatre-going public deserve to discover the true quality of JBP's writing...

  3. I've seen this production. Caricature is a good word for it. In one scene, the audience actually laughed when the headmistress daughter stomped crossly offstage, as if it was pantomime, and it was the actress's hammy acting that gave them the feeling it was right to do that. Francesca Annis in the second act reminded me of Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers.

    The first act is about nothing at all, and takes far too long to set the scene and mood, and that's the fault of the play not the production. And to be honest, when the third act returns to 1919, I was then looking out for the seeds of their own destruction and I just don't see them, except that they are rude to the future businessman because he's not of their class. Which isn't as striking as it should be because, although in his transformation in Act 2 he looks like Robert Maxwell, he is played by Adrian Scarborough, whose talent is for little, ridiculous comic men and fools, and so class becomes not the only reason the Conways are repelled by him; he is inherently slightly creepy and you almost don't blame them. So the issue of the morality of the class structure is muddied, leaving the only focus for blame the mother herself, and reducing the play's universality to a smaller tragedy of personality.

  4. That would be an understatement, SM: I can’t remember the last time I was SO bored in the theatre.

    BS, I meant ‘Why Time and the Conways at the National?’; ‘Why Time and the Conways at all?’; ‘Why on earth did I spend a huge amount of money to see a production I was bound to dislike since I have an allergy to Francesca-laugh-at-the-end-of-every-line-Annis?’ Don’t know what got into me.

    It is a museum piece that should stay in a museum. It really doesn’t matter that it was ‘radical’ in the 1930s if it has no relevance to our age. There are lots of plays that were relevant in the past that are not revived because they don’t speak to us now. I’m afraid I didn’t think JB Priestley had anything interesting to say about human nature if all he said was ‘Your dreams and ambitions are bound to be thwarted and unrealised in the future’. Hardly a revelation. We all know that, after a certain age, and I’m sure our parents and grandparents knew it too.

    I never saw that now-famous production of An Inspector Calls. I have seen two or three others. I enjoyed it every time. There is a certain ‘frisson’ about it; something that was entirely lacking in Time and the Conways.

    ‘Caricature’ is exactly the word I would have used to describe some of the performances in that production, L. At times it was like a pantomime. The first act, full of people with shrill voices ‘having fun’, was alienating in the extreme. I should probably have left in the interval, but I kept thinking, ‘Any minute now the “plot” will start to emerge’. Unfortunately, it never did.

  5. Oh, yes, I used to feel that 'alienation' thing when I listened to Loose Ends on Radio 4 with Ned Sherrin before he died. Like a party I hadn't been invited to. Wasn't it intentional in the case of the play, though? Weren't we supposed to find them annoying and revolting, and only change our minds when they started suffering in Act 2?

  6. I admit I had no idea what play "Time and the Conways" is and so your almost monolectic post had me searching for it, so good one. Now I know a thing or two about it through osmosis (have yet to see it obviously, but perhaps I won't rush out to! LOL)
    I only saw Francesca Annis in the pic and thought the objection was regarding the casting (I recall you weren't sympathetic towards her)!

    *hanging head in semi-shame*

  7. Well, L, if it was their intention to appear 'annoying and revolting', they certainly managed it - a little too well. LOL! They were so repellent that I couldn't have cared less whether they lived or died.

    E, it wasn't my intention to make that play better known. If you weren't aware of it until now, I wouldn't bother to get acquainted with it: not worth it, in my opinion.

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