Review – Time and the Conways, National Theatre

Wednesday 29 April 2009

timeoftheconways_149cns3kaAren’t the Whingers selfless putting you, dear reader, before their own personal safety? For last night the Whingers – surgical masks on faces – bravely risked a public gathering before their  inevitable outlawing (public gatherings, that is, not the Whingers).

Laughing in the face of swine flu the Whingers trotted off on their trotters, like pigs in sh*t, crackling with excitement, to the National Theatre (before it gets shut down) for the first preview of Time and the Conways by that lovely old leftie J B Priestley.

The Whingers weren’t laughing quite so confidently when a woman sitting behind them sneezed and hacked up her guts to the point where collars had to be turned up for protection and tragically it is probably only a matter of time before the Whingers find themselves doing the Mexican wave goodbye.

Yes, time. Today’s theme. Brought to you by the letters J, B and P for once again Mr Priestley plays with time, the second act of TATC  hopping forward 18 years before hopping back again for the third (yes, third act! three acts! two intervals!).

The National Theatre was playing with time too last night with the curtain (and yes, there is – eventually – an actual curtain) going up 15 minutes late and its approximate running time (2 hr 50) a mere 15 minutes short of the truth. All of which meant that this was pretty much a marathon evening with a mere 10 minutes of bar time left at the end of it.

To be fair there’s not an awful lot you could do about the running time. It’s a three act, solidly well made play with a great deal of slap work required by the make up artists between the acts to age the actors and then enyoungen them again.

Of course, what one could do, at a push, to shave a few moments off the running time, is not give it to Rupert Goold to direct. Not content to trust Mr Priestley’s more than adequate (in our humble opinion) naturalistic text Mr Goold introduces the exciting bonuses of an imploding set at the end of Act 1, a Cecil B De Mille meets Powell & Pressburger meets Kneehigh intervention at the end of Act 2 and, well, we’re not really sure what we saw at the end of Act 3 but it involved ghostly images, an awful lot of what looked like Cling Film and two rather uncomfortable looking actors dancing around.*

Goold seems desperate to do something with TATC as though Priestley’s play wasn’t enough. But where Stephen Daldry scored brilliantly with his radical 1992 National Theatre production of JBP’s An Inspector Calls, Goold’s re-imaginings seem gimmicky and tacked on. By Act 3 even the light fitting spinning above the stage like a clock (geddit) and Robin Conway (Mark Dexter) circling the furniture like the second hand of a clock (geddit) began to irritate Phil who was half expecting Francesca Annis to come on in a light up basque twirling tassels on her nipples and tooting on a trumpet.

Anyway. TATC opens in 1919 The war is over and the well-to-do Conway family under the seemingly beningh matriarchy of Francesca Annis are filled with optimism about their future. We hop forward 18 years to the eve of another war to see how their lives actually turn out before hopping back to 1919 to witness more events there with the benefit/curse of hindsight.

This flash-forward is very well handled by the cast who really do seem to age rather convincingly. Indeed there is good acting all around. It seems churlish to single anyone out but we were particularly impressed by Lydia Leonard as Hazel, the sister who marries money, Paul Ready as the mild mannered Alan and Faye Castelow (a young Sarah Miles) as the youngest and nicest of the Conway children.

In some ways TATC does prove to be rather, well, timely with bluestocking Madge’s (the fabulous Fenella Woolgar) prediction of the decline of capitalism and an end to booms and slumps followed by tales of plummeting property values and shares prices.

Look out too  for the Act 1 pink wallpaper which proved to be symbolic of the Whingers’ thoughts on the production: Phil thought it hideous but Andrew loved it. Not to say that Phil found the evening  hideous exactly, it’s just it didn’t come together for him until about halfway through Act 2.

While Andrew thought it was refreshingly naturalistic Phil felt it was under-rehearsed, unready and far too sluggish. And although he loved the basic time conceit he felt it all went on far too long, not least because it cheated him out of the opportunity for a post-show glass or two.


*Look out for the bay window curtains being nonchalantly drawn towards the end of each act to enable Mr Goold’s floor shows to be introduced. Then listen out for an awful lot of banging and clunking as the special effect is rolled into place. This was the first preview and hopefully the poor stage-hands will find a slicker method by the opening.

** Did you know that Francesca Annis has an uncredited role in the 1959 film Carry On Teacher? Did you know that there was a 1959 film called Carry On Teacher? We didn’t. It’s never on the telly, is it?

Whilst time is our theme Phil was delighted to find that whilst missing the original 1937 production of TATC he is of course old enough to have seen one of the original cast on stage.


28 Responses to “Review – Time and the Conways, National Theatre”

  1. JohnnyFox Says:

    Isn’t Carry on Teacher the one with Ted Ray? It seems to be on every Christmas …

  2. It seems inauspicious to label the lovely Faye Castelow ‘a young Sarah Miles’, particularly for anyone who sat through more than the first ten minutes of ‘Well’.

    Ms Castelow may have had a glass or two of claret cup but there was no evidence she was drinking her own urine.

  3. pb Says:

    Can I be the first to say “I can’t believe you wrote a review when you only saw the preview etc etc…”
    Sounds quite good though. I may make the trip…

  4. Glen Moranjie Says:

    I saw a preview last night, having heard the title, but not knowing it. Powerful stuff, highly recommended. I was also somewhat baffled by the surreal bits.

  5. Whats wrong with writing a review of a preview? I do it a lot. And its usually a damned sight cheaper than waiting until the show has officially opened.

    Personally, I’m hoping for a new production of “Dangerous Corner”. having seen it (twice) a loooooong time ago. It had Jean Boht and Gayle Hunnicutt in it. And very fab it was too.

  6. Vindice Says:

    Now come on WEW Carry on Taecher was the third in the legendary series and is often on telly. Joan Sims as the gym mistress with her shorts splitting in front of Leslie Phillips and Rosalind Knight as the school inspectors is one of the classic CO scenes. A very young Richard O’Sullivan and a very old Ted Ray also star along the regulars. It also featured Carol White who went on to be Cathy Come Home.

  7. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Oliver!, King Lear, Time and the Conways. Let’s hope R Goold has forty winks before he attempts Ten Little Indians. The guy is turning London’s West End into a regional theatre of the fifties. Goold > dust.

    • tokyonambu Says:

      Goold’s Tempest at Stratford was solid work, and although my parents weren’t totally convinced by his Macbeth on its London transfer I saw that production at Chichester (*) and was very impressed indeed. In both cases I’m prepared to be convinced that what I was really impressed by was a male lead who, unlike a lot of people, can actually speak the verse, but I thought the direction was interesting and appropriate.

      But it does certainly seen that early promise has turned into a succession of less convincing work. I think I’m right in saying that he’s down to do Romeo and Juliet at Stratford next season. Bluntly, you have to work pretty hard to cock up Tempest (indestructible, elegiac) or Macbeth (short, action-packed) if you have a good cast, and he did have a _very_ good cast in both cases. But Romeo and Juliet isn’t very good…if you make the leads plausibly young it’s rare for them to have the presence, if you get actors who can speak the verse they are laughably old. And the ghost of both Romeo+Juliet and West Side Story (+) lurks for any attempt to make it `modern’ and `relevant’. If the bookie would take ante-post bets on Billington’s review, I guessing **.

      (*) My daughter read a review in the Guardian and convinced me to buy two tickets and undertake the six hour round trip to a matinee. She was at the time twelve. Who says there’s no future audience for live theatre?

      (+) Saw the current touring production at the weekend. Where does the audience come from in the provinces to sell out a large theatre for several weeks with a fifty year old confection of cheap Stravinsky borrowings, some of dear Stephen’s lesser words and the political awareness of the black and white minstrel show? The frocks were pretty, though.

  8. webcowgirl Says:

    Hmm. I’ll consider seeing this but it sounds like it really needs some more time in the oven. And I’ll go for a Friday or Saturday night. Life is too short to feel rushed out of a show because, er, you want to be awake at work the next day.

  9. Woking’s production of “An Inspector Calls” that just finished was fantastic. And short.

  10. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    When Andrew says “Did you know that there was a 1959 film called Carry On Teacher? We didn’t.” he is, of course, using his “We” royally. Probably just as Sarah Miles would if she were in possession of a title.

    But then Andrew claims he wasn’t around in 1959, so perhaps he can be forgiven.

  11. A Clown Says:

    A good review, although I was a little disappointed to not see any mention of Francesca Annis’ valiant attempts to detach her scarf from Hattie Morahan’s ring for about a minute in Act I! They were quite fimrly stuck together.

    I would be very interested to know what, if any, changes will be made before the opening night. I rather hope they keep it as it is, I quite enjoyed the unexpected little codas.

  12. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    I’m sure Andrew knows that Ms Annis was also in the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra as Liz’s handmaiden.

    Filming began (apparently) in 1959, 3 years before Ralph Fiennes was born.

    Released 1963. Little Ralphie released 1962.

  13. JohnnyFox Says:

    Actually I don’t think ‘little Ralphie’ was released from Ms. Annis’s, er, grasp until 2006, 11 years after she had first engaged with it.

  14. sandown Says:

    “The guy (Rupert Goold) is turning London’s West End into a regional theatre of the fifties.”

    The National Theatre is not in the West End, but on the South Bank — although in fact most of its audience comes from Lefty North London. (That also applies to the Royal Court, which is not to be confused with Buckingham Palace.)

    Rupert Goold is presumably trying to breathe a bit of life into the wheezy old socialist relic.

  15. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    “in fact most of its audience comes from Lefty North London” – i.e. “I have no evidence at all for this except my own prejudices, but I shall state it firmly and hope that no-one queries it.”

    Bad luck. What’s your evidence? I know of no such study, but I stand to be corrected.

  16. @ Sandown:

    Given with the speed at which even the aged and arthritic (i.e. most of them) made for the exists after such a late finish and lurched urgently toward Waterloo in a determined programme-clutching phalanx, I’d have said that most of the NT audience for TATC came from leafy Surrey, not known for its socialist leanings.

    Not remotely scientific audience survey, of course, but just as good as yours.

    Incidentally, Sandown, can you put me a half-crown each way on ‘Laughing Boy’ in your 2.30 ? Thank you so much.

  17. Tom Murphy Says:

    I’d agree with her ladyship – we went on Weds 29th and it was as “Surrey” a crowd as I could remember seeing at the NT.

    Everyone seemed thoroughly underwhelmed by the physical theatre shenanigans at the end – I think it diminished the applause/reception quite a bit. I did like the time-slice effect at the end of Act II though.

    I only *really* got into it at the start of Act II, when the cast do a brilliant job of depicting the characters 19 years down the line. Through most of the first act I was struggling to differentiate the various squeaky posh birds.

    And it was impossible not to think of the arrival of Captain Flash on Blackadder when smoothy RAF son turned up.

  18. Absolutley adored this production – took me to places I haven’t been for quite some time.Wonderful…………….

  19. David Cottis Says:

    I’m still intrigued by the reference to Phil having seen one of the original cast on stage. My money’s on Raymond Huntley, although I suppose Mervyn Johns is possible.

  20. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    David you’re correct and receive this week’s star prize.
    It was in Separate Tables with Jill Bennett, John Mills, Margaret Courtney and Zena Walker.
    Ah those were the days.

  21. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Raymond Huntley.
    But you’re correct we’re both dizzy..

  22. David Cottis Says:

    Did you know he (Huntley) was the first actor to play Dracula?

  23. […] Conways – £10 – 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14 July only By webcowgirl After reading the West End Whingers’ positive review for this play, I’ve been interested in going, but not really willing to […]

  24. […] the National Theatre’s production of Time and the Conways for a mere £10. It had received a positive review from the West End Whingers, but its 3 hour running time – and, admittedly, cost – had put me off. However, with an […]

  25. webcowgirl Says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I really enjoyed this show once I managed to get my hands on some tasty £10 seats.

  26. Boz Says:

    Having watched this last night, you’re review is bang on the money. And they clearly have not found away to make those scene changes at the end of each act any quieter.

    But, for £10, it’s still pretty good. It didn’t quite work for me, but it was interesting to see.

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