Time and the Conways

Whatever the essence of time, writers have riffed most often on the literary commonplace of tempus edax rerum: time, the devourer of all things.  And, for the most part, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, follows suit, showing how the wealthy family’s success and optimism at the end of First World War are brought to tragic collapse on the eve of the Second.

It is a powerful and demanding drama and in spite of the wonderful attention to period detail in the setting and costumes (Guy Hawkins, Dave Le Hegarat, Tam Walker-Reid and Helen Golding), the stage, ultimately, left its players nowhere to hide. The dialogue and its delivery were all they had to sustain the audience’s attention, while also having to deal with a pretty slippery metaphysical understanding of time.

At the rise of curtain, it is 1919 and Kay’s (Ellisa Walker-Reid) birthday. As the lights go up and the Conways and their friends come and go, the actors showed precisely why Director of Drama Mark Sell had every faith he and his troupe could pull this challenging piece off. The audience was treated to crackling conversation – the superb quality announced first in that of sisters Hazel, Carol and Madge (respectively, Milly Sherwin, Rebecca Roberts and Sophie Hopkins) – that blew history’s dust off the dialogue, transporting it from its 1937 publication to the here and now.  There was no time off: having a break from dialogue did not mean having a break from acting.  How on earth could it when the single illuminated setting offered up the actors to continuous scrutiny?  It was a masterclass in stage presence and the veracity of the peripheral action was remarkable, contributing much to the drawing-room realism of Priestley’s style. The first act’s mood was alive with the prospect of a rosy future, espoused by a bright-eyed Sophie and expressed on a more familial level by Robin (Seb Coleman), demobbed and very happy about it, who asserts in a tone that leaves no room for doubt: ‘This is where the Conways really begin.’  The act ends with a pensive Kay, alone on stage, looking out of the window, picture of the child and lamb stage left, an image of the post-war naivety about to be shattered by a vision of the future.

If Alan (Nic Yanni) offers some consolation in his line that time is a charade that renders the present a dream, the rest of Act II, set twenty years later and again on Kay’s birthday, reveals the Conways as little more than poor players upon its stage, full of sound and fury – the cut-glass accents no longer chiming – and at the mercy of their associates, solicitor Gerald and nouveau riche outsider Ernest (Rob Gain and Ben Shepherd). Time – ‘the great devil’, according to Kay, and Priestley’s more harrowing treatment of it – may not have been kind to the Conways, but boy did their tragedy bring out the talent of our actors.  The act was absolutely and utterly spellbinding.  Kay has surrendered her ambition of writing, Madge her socialist dreams and Hazel those of a romantic marriage, finding herself instead the submissive wife of the abusive Ernest, who spent the act breathing in the Conways’ tragedy and breathing out his resentment all over it.  Robin, sunk in dissipation, spars bitterly with ex-wife Joan (Beau Pettman), a participant, along with fellow guests Gerald and Ernest, in Act I’s charades.  All dreams had been gnawed away by time, even Carol’s simple desire to live, the earnest articulation of which the audience would have to wait until Act III.  There were set speeches of mesmeric power from everybody and not least Isabelle Mousley, whose heart-rending performance of Mrs Conway’s catalogue of losses captured perfectly the barren world of the inter-war years, and Ellisa, whose broken Kay begging for crumbs of solace from a bewildered Alan choked throats with pathos.  These impassioned monologues were interspersed with single lines pitched perfectly for dramatic impact – Joan’s ‘One day it won’t hurt at all’, Alan’s ‘Perhaps we get worse’, Kay’s ‘Something that was always enduring’ – and passages of such emotional intensity one wondered on what the actors were drawing.

Act III returns the audience to the scene of I, picking up moments after its end. But now all innocence is gone and everything – Joan and Robin’s passionately hands-on hide-and-seek, Mrs Conway’s flirting with Gerald and, especially, the siblings’ hopes for their futures – is tarnished by the audience’s knowledge.  The effect was crushing.  The performance recalled Larkin’s line ‘Never such innocence again’ (‘MCMXIV’) and to watch the carefree Conways at play after the sorrows of Act II was to feel the future claw hungrily at the present.  And seeds were being planted, too.  There was a whiff of the lascivious in Seb’s Robin while Ben’s Ernest, in his tactless, dogged pursuit of Hazel and especially in his political debate with Madge, opened a window onto his future treatment of the family.  The electrifying menace of the dialogue’s rhythm and his ability to accelerate the pace of every conversation to the point of confrontation revealed already how soured by hostility the future would be.  If there was any solace, it was in Nic’s enigmatic and gentle Alan.  His dream is broken now, in 1919, its timing out of joint, as he is encouraged out of the window by his beloved Joan in order that she might spend time in the dark with her beloved Robin.  And slipping symbolically out of that window allows him a new perspective.  Alan comes to know what others do not or what Kay glimpses, but cannot grasp: time is not what it seems.  Past, present and future are woven together, like Blake’s joy and woe, an understanding that gives quiet, unambitious Alan the secret key to earthly contentment and a compassionate, commanding calm.

It was a stunning production and testament to Mark Sell’s vision, not to mention the faith he invested in his actors, that the drama’s technical demands – ageing the cast twenty years between Acts I and II, then rejuvenating it between II and III – and the mature theatrical sensitivity required, and required consistently, of the pupils was hardly noticeable, accomplished without strain and to the highest of professional standards. It came off so smoothly, so vividly, that we knew we were witness to something very rare and very special.  There is no doubt that we will all recollect the immense talent of our young actors in the weeks to come, finding ourselves at various times tempted to echo Kay’s tantalising line – although without the undertow of tragedy – that wherever we might be, we are not where we are, but remembering.

Mr Matthew Whitman

St Edmund’s School was very pleased to welcome members of JB Priestley’s family who were in the audience on the last night.  Here is what they had to say:

“I was very impressed by the production and found it very moving in places. The cast, particularly when they connected with the deeper existential parts of the dialogue, showed a remarkable understanding and expression of the range of emotions and experiences that JB Priestley conveys so well through the characters and the dialogue. The production captured well the different periods the play is set in, while also capturing universals of human experience. And in some ways we found it to be more moving than any other production of Time and the Conways that we have seen.” Karen Goaman, Granddaughter

“I was extremely impressed with Mark Sell’s production of Time and the Conways. The quality and scale of the play were far beyond what one would normally expect from a school play. The young cast were superb, and proved adept at portraying characters much older than their own years. The set design was also excellent, and the walls that closed in during the second act provided an expressionistic touch reminiscent of Stephen Daldry’s set design on his version of An Inspector Calls. All in all, a very successful production that bodes well for the future careers of all those who were involved.” Luke Goaman-Dodson, Great-Grandson