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Time and the Conways, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

THE recent spate of main-stage co-productions may have been borne in part from economic circumstances, but they are delivering in spades.

This timely revival of J.B. Priestley's time-shifting family saga is a case in point, especially as Jemima Levick's elegant and haunting production explicitly points up how human potential can be crushed by economic decline.

The play opens to the sound of laughter in an empty room, where the Conway brood are celebrating the writerly Kay's birthday with a game of charades. With Kay's brother Robin returning from the trenches, optimism is in the air, be it from the potential romances of glamorous Hazel, the political idealism of Madge, or the sheer joie de vivre of Carol. Only withdrawn Alan appears to have portents of uncertainty.

With the final act set seconds later, sandwiched between the two is a scenario set in the same room in 1937. By this time, the family is fractured, with only the shared experiences of debt, death, class-based snobbery and profound disappointment holding them together.

Levick helms this beautifully in a production that breathes fresh life into an already devastating play. A superb ensemble cast mark the changes in their characters with a subtlety that brings all their failings to life. Irene MacDougall is fabulously brittle as Mrs Conway, with all the women in the cast presenting agonising portraits of their loss of self-hood. All this may initially look Chekhovian, but is much crueller. Given everything that's happened since, hearing Madge relay her vision for a Socialist utopia is heartbreaking in a deeply troubling state-of-the-nation meditation that's far greater than a mere period piece.

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