Quite often in a theatre review the set, the lighting and the sound get the briefest of mentions in roughly the fourth paragraph down. It is almost as if, amongst the acting talent, they only had a marginal existence. Not so in this review. The set of 'Time and The Conways' at Nottingham Playhouse is one of the best and most inventive of sets I have ever seen and enhanced beyond measure by top quality lighting and sound.
The set for 'Time and The Conways' is that of a side room in the aristocratic household of the Conway family initially in 1919. To the fore are a variety of chairs and a large lamp on a stand with a medium sized chandelier hovering mid stage. A party is taking place off stage. The characters are all having a jolly time dressing up for a game of charades. Through these games we get a glimpse into the relationships. As the first act unfolds the set comes into its own. The space where a wall might be is like a veil of diluted memories, shimmering with ghosts of the past as they appear and disappear; the recently dead Mr Conway floats on and off, phantom soldiers stare into the void and an other worldly waltz floats by. The whole of the space where these things take place feels and looks like another semi solid spectral dimension associated with memories. The set designer is Madeleine Girling, winner of the Lord Williams Memorial prize for design in 2012 and the winner of the Linbury Prize for Stage Design 2013 for her speculative design work and model of 'Time and The Conways' in collaboration with Nottingham Playhouse.
The wonderfully atmospheric lighting is designed and produced by Mark Jonathan -especially good at the end of each act as we see time shifting back and forth. It is due to the talent of sound designer Drew Baumohl that we sincerely believe that there is a party going on side stage, unobtrusive but very evident and really gives the feeling that there is a world hell bent on having fun in the main house. The musical director is Stefan Bednarczyk.
Director Fiona Buffini, in her first directorial role at Nottingham Playhouse, makes J.B Priestley's brilliant play shine, diminish, sparkle and glow with her tight and fast moving directorial control. Throughout there is an almost tangible feeling of an atmosphere of another age. The whole of her ten strong, terrific cast, plus supernumeraries, have total commitment to getting the two historical periods spot on and capture well the fine nuances of the ageing personalties of this crumbling and disparate family and their difficult relationships with each other. It is Priestley's theatrical genius that allows us to see them throughout two decades of British history and to revisit the earlier post World War One period again for a second viewing.
Louise Jameson as Mrs Conway portrays her flawed character to perfection, from the fun loving matriarch of 1919 to the embittered woman in denial of her flaws and the consequences of her actions to the family unit. The theme for the play asks 'how strong are family ties?' It may also ask 'how strongly are the women valued in this story?' My answer would be – not very much. Even from the viewpoint of their own sex there is constant resentment and belittlement of relationships and artistic talent. Priestley's strength is in his subtle creation of these characters and his understanding of their complex psychologies.
Scott Turnbull turns his character, the shy and awkward Ernest Beevers from sympathetic in the first act to downright bitter and menacing in the second in a brilliantly understated performance and Rosie Jones shines as the eternally optimistic but ultimately tragic Carol Conway.
Pascale Burgess is totally believable as Madge the dedicated school teacher who finds herself despairing of her family and willing to pay the price of cutting herself off forever.
The whole cast present a fluid mix of very truthful human beings and work well within the abstract nature of the set. Despite the serious nature of this tragic story Priestly cleverly weaves in plenty of laughs that are enjoyed by the most appreciative Nottingham Playhouse audience. For high quality regional theatre I cannot recommend this gripping and thought provoking production highly enough.
Time and The Conways runs at Nottingham Playhouse from 12th - 27th September 2014
Photos: Copyright. Robert Day
Review originally written for The Public Reviews 17th September 2014