Published in the Guardian
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Thanks to a flurry of co-productions between theatres in Scotland, Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum is currently associated with two top-quality ensembles. While Mark Thomson's staging of Takin' Over the Asylum moves from Glasgow to Edinburgh, boasting an impressive cast through the ranks, Jemima Levick's classy revival of the JB Priestley time play settles in Dundee after a run in the capital with an equally persuasive company.
The poignancy of this 1937 drama rests less narratively, in its riches-to-rags tale, than structurally, in the contrast between its three acts. It begins in well-made-play mode as the Conway family hold an airy house party – all dressing-up games, jovial banter and bourgeois inconsequentiality. There's nothing to unsettle an interwar West End audience until Priestley takes a startling break from the formula. Boldly, he flashes forward to show the same characters 20 years on, their hopes dashed, their promise unfulfilled. What seemed breezy and slight becomes weighted with emotion.
JM Barrie played similar temporal tricks, but usually with a supernatural element. Here, Levick adds a spooky quality of her own by placing ghostly figures through the transparent walls of Ti Green's cinematically proportioned set. It's as if the different periods were parallel universes disconcertingly rubbing against each other.
For several of the actors, it effectively means playing two characters. Sally Reid, already acting against type as the upper-crust Madge, transforms from a bright-eyed socialist campaigner to a dowdy and embittered school mistress. She does both brilliantly.
Elsewhere, it's the detail you notice: the painful stillness of Richard Conlon's underachieving Alan; the killing cruelty of Irene Macdougall's matriarchal Mrs Conway; the stony faced social climbing of Andy Clark's Ernest Beevers; and the air of haunted distraction of Emily Winter's Kay. You'd call it sentimental if it wasn't for Priestley's political prescience: this self-regarding social class deserved everything it was about to get.
At Dundee Rep, 13–30 March (01382 223530). Details: www.dundeerep.co.uk