Theatre reviews: Time and The Conways | Takin’ Over The Asylum | A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity

From popular comedy to a deep meditation on the nature of time, it’s been a particularly strong week for Scottish theatre, with some terrific performances all round

Time and The Conways

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Star rating; * * * *

Takin’ Over The Asylum

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

Star rating; * * * *

A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Star rating; * * * *

JB PRIESTLEY’s Time And The Conways was first seen in London in 1937; and like many an old-fashioned play, it has a signature poem, taken from William Blake’s Auguries Of Innocence. “Joy and woe are woven fine,/A clothing for the soul divine./Under every grief and pine/ Runs a joy with silken twine…” goes the quote; and it’s an epigraph that might have been made for this spring season in Scottish theatre, dominated by the two impressive main stage productions that opened in Glasgow and Edinburgh last weekend.

Time And The Conways, at the Royal Lyceum, is a co-production with Dundee Rep, where it appears in March; and in Jemima Levick’s bravely sombre production, it emerges as a truly fascinating play, a dark and searching piece of mid-20th-century nihilism clothed in the style of a middle-class drawing room drama.

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The play is set in a small drawing room in the house of the Conways, a well-to-do middle-class English family – recently widowed mother, four daughters, two sons – living in a small town not far from London, in the years between 1919 and the late 1930s. The accents are cut-glass stage English, the style is stilted by modern standards, and in the opening scenes the story leans towards melodrama, as the girls remember their father’s tragic death, and welcome their charming brother Robin back from the trenches.

Yet Ti Green’s design – greyish walls and furniture fading into a dark mist of memory, the characters picked out against it in strange, ill-matching acid-coloured costumes – flatly refuses to conform to our pretty Downton fantasies of what period drama should look like. And as the story begins to grip – lurching forward to the eve of the Second World War in its dark second act, and then returning again to that early moment of hope – we gradually realise that something very different is moving beneath the surface of Priestley’s play, and in Irene Macdougall’s fine performance as Mrs Conway; not only a radical critique of the bullying bourgeois attitudes which seem subtly to blight her children’s lives, but a deep meditation on how we think of time itself, as it gradually weakens, devours and destroys us.

So it’s in the great, despairing second act dialogue between Mrs Conway’s writer daughter Kay, now 40, and her quiet, home-loving elder brother Alan, that Levick’s production soars to its greatest intensity, with Emily Winter and Richard Conlon excelling themselves in the huge spiritual effort to find some comfort in a darkening world. And although Time And The Conways is never easy to watch, something in the intense ensemble feeling of the Dundee Rep company, in Philip Pinsky’s haunting soundscape, and in the deep integrity of the performances, leads us through, this time, to the passionate human question at the heart of the play; and leaves us there, with the Conways, and with all the history of the last century, distilled into a single moment.

Donna Franceschild’s Takin’ Over The Asylum – co-produced by the Citizens’ and the Lyceum, and set to arrive in Edinburgh next month – is also a play about the rich weave of joy and woe; but here, the form is 21st-century popular comedy, and the style a rousing mix of rowdy laughter and sudden, sharp tragedy. The scene – based on Franceschild’s successful 1990s TV sitcom, but now substantially reshaped – is a mental hospital in Glasgow, where failing DJ and double-glazing salesman Eddie McKenna arrives on an assignment to revive the hospital radio station.

In a few powerful opening scenes, we begin to see how the simple, low-key act of creativity involved in choosing music, shaping it into sequences, and sharing it with others, begins to transform the lives of the group of patients Eddie meets, including hyperactive young Campbell, brilliantly played by Brian Vernel, and the silent, suffering Francine, beautifully captured by Helen Mallon.

It can’t last, of course. There’s something about real human creativity that riles and frightens bureaucracies everywhere; and the show ends in conflict, and some tragedy. Along the way, though, a quietly superb Iain Robertson as Eddie, and this magnificent ten-strong ensemble, create a fine, irresistible piece of popular theatre, with a great, beating heart, wonderful tunes, and terrific jokes; and Mark Thomson’s beautifully paced production lifts the spirits, even while it gazes unflinchingly at some of the toughest stuff human beings have to face.

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As for Douglas Maxwell’s gorgeous 40-minute two-hander A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity, at Oran Mor and the Traverse, this is a play about bereavement in which the comic impulse takes over almost entirely. The unfortunately named Jim Dick is a young working guy who finds himself seized by an embarrassing outburst of nervous obscenity at his boss’s funeral. The boss’s widow, Annabelle, is strangely intrigued by his vivid use of f-words and c-words, and befriends him, in an effort to get to grips with the linguistic world her self-made husband once inhabited.

The result – in Orla O’Loughlin’s production – is a hilarious riff on language, class and communication, perfectly structured by Maxwell, and magnificently delivered by Joanna Tope and Scott Fletcher, in one of the most perfectly tuned double acts I’ve ever seen on a Scottish stage. It’s not deep, and it’s very short; but for a brief lunchtime of pure theatrical pleasure, you won’t do better, in Scotland this year.

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•  Time And The Conways is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 9 March, and at Dundee Rep, 13-30 March. Takin’ Over The Asylum is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 9 March, and at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 13 March-6 April. A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 26 February-2 March.