Time and the Conways (Royal Lyceum)

There are always plays which over the years end up being performed so rarely that their existence slips from our minds. For some, it can only be said that this is a justifiable situation; for others, it is only when they are revived that we realise what we have been missing. This Royal Lyceum/Dundee Rep production of J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways falls firmly into the latter camp. And under the direction of Jemima Levick, blessed with a cast who demonstrate their understanding of the material, it is an unqualified success.

Part of Priestley’s trilogy of plays on the nature of time, it is set in the Conways’ home on the occasion of Kay Conway’s 21st and 40th birthdays. Her 21st falls immediately after the First World War; a time of optimism with the family – Mrs Conway and her four daughters and two sons – gathered together for the celebration and looking forward to a bright future. Kay is an aspiring author, Hazel, the prettiest girl in town, has no shortage of suitors and Madge is brimming with socialist principles for this brave new world. Robin is full of ideas for making his fortune and the youngest daughter Carol is a seemingly unstoppable force of nature. Only the quiet, self-effacing Alan expresses no ambitions.

But as the evening wears on and guests take their leave, Kay becomes troubled by glimpses of their future – a future where death, failed marriages, financial problems and thwarted ambitions leave her 40th birthday an occasion for reflection and regrets rather than a celebration.

The second act takes us to that night, as Kay had foreseen it. Carol victim of an early death, Hazel a downtrodden an bullied wife, Madge a successful mistress at a girls’ school at the expense of her principles, the feckless waster Robin separated from his wife and children, Alan – deprived of his only ambition when Robin married the girl he loved – made even more unhappy by her unhappiness and Kay herself writing fatuous pieces on celebrities instead of the novels she had envisioned.

The final act takes us back to Kay’s 21st, where we see the family set in motion the events that set them on their paths to this unhappy future. This could be construed as a cruel play in spite of the crackling wit of Priestley’s text, as happiness is beyond all those involved, but he suggests that this is only one possible future for the family. Is it a product of Kay’s insecurities, that she may not be good enough a writer? Do the others see it differently? The play ends on an unresolved note, Alan’s hesitant but hopeful words to Kay leaving us to believe this possibility.

A fine production with excellent performances from the whole cast, from the entrance of Hazel (a captivating Jessica Tomchak) to the concluding words from Alan (Richard Conlon holding centre stage while exuding reticence) with Emily Winter note-perfect in the pivotal role as Kay.

Jim Welsh