Priestley gained a reputation for contemporary relevance with Stephen Daldry’s imaginative staging of An Inspector Calls in a bombed-out wasteland. Can Rupert Goold pull off the same trick for this naturalistic drama, which even the author recognised suffered from a duff first act?
Priestley’s plot is simple, his construction complex. The Conways, first seen in happy birthday party mood in 1919, play charades and get nowhere dramatically. But in the two succeeding acts we first move on 20 years to a squabbling family in crisis before shifting back to 1919 and the events which foreshadowed their subsequent despair.
Across too wide a space for domestic intimacy, designer Laura Hopkins fashions a handsome sitting room setting with walls that twice morph into other shapes between the acts - although Priestley specified silvery moonlight fade-outs. And when hostility destroys the family circle, a string of seven mirrored fireplaces choreograph the trauma of Hattie Morahan’s central figure of Kay, a would-be novelist reduced to celebrity journalism. More ambitiously, at the end of the evening, Goold enters Katie Mitchell territory, with the distracting deployment of video images and echoing sound-bites.
But these quibbles apart, Goold creates what he does best, an ensemble of actors who animate their characters with impressive emotional depth. None more so than the ever watchable Morahan in a beautifully detailed performance, equally convincing as Kay at 21, full of future hopes, and an elegant if badly bruised 40-year-old hack with time running out.
Key performances also come from Francesca Annis as the maliciously destructive matriarch, Paul Ready as her diffident older son, Mark Dexter portraying the family favourite as a swaggering lout and a fine cameo from Fenella Woolgar as a political idealist who becomes a bitter, disillusioned schoolmistress. These and the rest are the real business of this flawed but fascinating play.