15 February – 9 March
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
The universe has a habit of making its own plans for us all; in our darker moods, taking control can seem dauntingly futile. However, a little perspective can go a long way. For this Dundee Rep Ensemble and the Lyceum co-production of JB Priestley’s classic play,Time and the Conways, finding the calm in the eye of the storm is a bitter-sweet affair. In its exploration of the values and uncertainty of risk-taking and ambition, the play is a tough but ultimately rewarding experience.
The paralysing inevitability of Britain’s march toward the Second World War, even while the horrors of the First lingered so vividly, casts a black shadow over the Conways. The futility of their aspirations in an imminently crumbling world sets a nervous edge to the family’s initially care-free appearance. On her twentieth birthday, Kay Conway (played by Emily Winter), tortured by her bipolar anxieties, plunges into a nightmarish premonition of her loving family life turned sour.
Winter and Irene Macdougall (as the matriarch Mrs Conway) produced powerful performances in their respective roles, as their concealed fears bubble over their increasingly desperate grasp on ‘the good times’. The exhausting emotional undertaking the two actresses will have to find for each performance will make this as one of their most challenging and powerful performances for some time. Richard Conlon is also engaging as Alan, the quietly wise wallflower. Though Alan offers a stark contrast to his family, who rally loudly against the ticking away of time, Conlon presents a character that is no less filled with regret, and is transformed from a picture on the wall to a dominant presence, making for a curious and meditated discovery of his character. There are moments of refreshing comedy that militates against the narrative’s engulfing darkness. The costumed charade of the first act is enacted with gleeful physical humour (an unexpectedly unanimous flourish of laughter spilled from Ernest Beevers’ (Andy Clark) attempt to join in with the game), and serves as a reminder that there is a love and hope in the family despite Kay’s anxieties.
The set will surprise most of all – even if one were to “suss” the set’s particular illusion beforehand, its staging captures moments of magic realism with great subtlety and understated confidence. Again, there is a heavy allusion to the deathly march of time, as designer Ti Green’s static set is embalmed in cold light, its grey colour bleeding into the future apparitions of the characters themselves. There is a delicate balance in not exploiting the set’s main illusion, and though audiences may feel underwhelmed by the seemingly simplistic initial design, the pay-off is an outright success.
Once again, graduate actors Vevers and McBride are utilised well, McBride particularly enjoying an opportunity to play two sides of a character as the jointly aspiring and reckless Robin. There are countless glimpses of invested, nuanced understanding from all the actors – Nicola Harrison, for example, as the nervously unwelcome ‘future’ Joan, sits uncomfortably on the edge of her chair as if ready to be ousted.
Time and the Conways may present a tone of sombre melancholy, but such is Priestley’s philosophical approach that its audiences are likely to leave to energised discussions of the abstract ideas explored. It will be interesting to discover how the Rep Theatre will compare to the Lyceum’s sumptuous venue, which perhaps better frames the family’s charade in what might be their last days of decadence. In the context of a less distractingly decorative venue such as the Rep, the play may evoke a different philosophy without the framed frivolity of Act 1 to be re-transported to, but in either case, audiences are likely to be mesmerised by such a thoughtful collaboration.