'The Illusionist'

Should be far more affecting than this National Theater production allows.

The house lights dim and a silencing sting of scary metallic sound fills the air, followed by ominous ticking. Those melodramatic opening cues announce that, just in case the audience hasn’t clocked it, the play’s title is “Time and the Conways.” Such heavy-handedness is symptomatic of Rupert Goold’s dogmatic approach. More worryingly, his self-conscious (over)illustration of the play’s themes numbs emotional engagement. It may not be J.B. Priestley’s finest, but the play should be far more affecting than this National Theater production allows.

First produced in 1937, the drama cunningly embeds a radical philosophical questioning of the workings of time within a comfortably naturalistic, traditional three-act frame.

Audiences are initially lulled into a sense of security by the depiction of family ups and downs at a party to celebrate the 21st birthday of Kay Conway (Hattie Morahan), the most thoughtful of five children living with their mother (Francesca Annis) in well-upholstered coziness in 1919. Flashing forward 19 years, the second act portrays everyone saddened or soured by the ravages of time. The third then piles on the pathos by cutting back to Kay’s party, with the audience watching helplessly as everyone makes what we know to be wrong moves and fatal choices. 

That, at least, is what’s supposed to happen. But by introducing overly emphatic movement scenes and a closing video sequence restating overarching themes already made plain by the text, Goold upsets Priestley’s delicate balance of form and content.

Making Laura Hopkins’ entire living-room set lurch to one side at the close of the first act weakens the surprise of the second-act time leap. Similarly, the movement sequence at the end of the act, with Kay suddenly mirrored by six identical figures all simultaneously working through contemporary dance cliches of angst, merely restates what we already know.

By pushing subtext so far to the fore, Goold not only appears not to trust the text, but he forces everything toward expressionism. That approach famously worked in Stephen Daldry’s celebrated revival of Priestley’s later “An Inspector Calls,” but “Time and the Conways” demands subtler playing. 

Almost all the performances are elaborately detailed, but they work only in isolation. Pushed to the point of exaggeration, they collectively make less and less sense. Adrian Scarborough is a subtle and truthful actor, but his pushy Ernest Beevers appears so unlikable and vicious, it’s a mystery why Lydia Leonard’s hopeful Hazel married him, let alone stays with him.

With too much of the cast encouraged toward shrill overstatement, audiences are left with nothing to discern for themselves; the production does their thinking for them. That leaves characters impressively played but fatally unengaging, making the material look weaker than it actually is.

The finest performances come from the actors who resist overkill. Fenella Woolgar is so captivatingly sincere as socialist Madge, she even gives touching beauty to a recitation of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.” Faye Castelow has a delicious lightness of touch as the forever young Carol and, wearing disappointment like corduroy, Paul Ready quietly steals the show as unambitious, overlooked Alan.

Goold’s recent lauded productions — notably his video-infused rethink of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and the fascist-state “Macbeth” that transferred to the West End and Broadway — have impressive intellectual coherence. Yet what this peculiarly unmoving production ultimately underlines is that his approach lacks heart.

Time and the Conways

National Theater/Lyttelton, London; 898 seats; £42.50 $64 top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in three acts by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Rupert Goold.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Laura Hopkins; lighting, Mark Henderson; original music and sound, Adam Cork; movement, Scott Ambler; video, Fifty-Nine Prods.; production stage manager, Andrew Speed. Opened, reviewed May 5, 2009. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Kay Conway - Hattie Morahan Alan Conway - Paul Ready Mrs. Conway - Francesca Annis Madge Conway - Fenella Woolgar Hazel Conway - Lydia Leonard Robin Conway - Mark Dexter Joan Helford - Lisa Jackson Carol Conway - Faye Castelow Gerald Thornton - Alistair Petrie Ernest Beevers - Adrian Scarborough
With: Lorna Beckett, Jessie Burton, Lucy Cudden, Lynette Edwards, Simon Markey, Perri Snowdon.
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