I can imagine that when Time and the Conways came up for Rupert Goold, as his first show at the National he might have seen it as a double edged sword. The comparisons with Stephen Daldry's zeitgeist production of An Inspector Calls, which opened in 1991 and now, a New Labour renewal and collapse later still tours the regions, outlasting the very movement it seemed to herald, is an obvious place for any critic to start. Two Priestley plays, two young directors at similar moments in their careers, championing a desire for a certain kind of theatricality to extend beyond the bounds of naturalism. Time present and time past, perhaps?
That this production won't live as long in the memory as the long shadows and collapsing dolls house of Daldry's master work lies as much in the structure and indulgence of the play as in the vision of the director. The playful form and suggestion that we don't have to perceive time in an exclusively linear way is a kind of early post-modern diversion, perfect for mucking around with, but harder to grind any meaning from.
The first act opens on Kay Conway's twenty first birthday, in 1919, with her family gathered around her playing charades and dreaming of their futures. War is finally over and the brave new world is opening up before them. The second act jumps forwards twenty years to the eve of a second war and the dreams have been somewhat dampened: Kay is not the best selling novelist she wanted to be, but a gossip columnist in a tabloid newspaper, Madge who felt invincibly empowered by the thought of a coming socialist utopia is a teacher in the local school, hero fighter pilot Rupert is a drunken spiv, glamour girl Hazel, is unhappily married to a rich bully of a factory owner and wide eyed Carol, the best and brightest of them all has died. Only ever steady Alan remains as he was, unchallenged, unambitious and calm, aware that making an enemy of time will inevitably lead to despair.
...I believe half our trouble now is because we think Time's ticking our lives away. That's why we snatch and grab and hurt each other.
The third act returns us to 1919 and allows us to see the seeds of unhappiness being sown.
Goold, who enjoys layering different realities and time frames on the same stage, is the right director for this and he gets brilliant performances out of Paul Ready, as Alan and Hattie Morahan as nerve ridden Kay - but I can't help thinking that in 1937 (fascinatingly the play was written two years before the second act is set) there were more urgent and truthful things to write about than this rather strange and disappointed attack on determinism. Perhaps Priestley himself saw the near future opening up ahead and was already laying down an analysis of what had gone wrong in the inter war years? - he certainly believed in precognition. Even with hindsight and retrieval, however, the play feels more like an existential debate than a relevant commentary. It literally passes the time.
An alternative view can be found on the Guardian's website