Time and the Conways, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

They're playing happy families
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It's all a charade. The party games at the beginning of Time and the Conways may conjure up an impression of happy families, but this is J B Priestley. Below the surface of hopes (dashed?) and dreams (ruined?) rumbles the more complex question: is happiness possible and can we influence the course of our lives? The playwright was accused of loading the dice against the Conway family and of taking an overly pessimistic stance. Nowadays, he'd probably be criticised for not solving their problems through counselling, marriage guidance, and a financial adviser.

In Braham Murray's production at Manchester's Royal Exchange, plenty is made of Priestley's acutely observed humour. There's no lack of individual characterisation from an excellent cast, and, helped by Johanna Bryant's carefully recreated domestic set, enough emphasis is put on the play's theatrical colours to make it a thoroughly involving evening.

Since this is one of Priestley's "time" plays, moving not just forward but also back, we're able to review the first image in a different light. Now we fear for these jolly, carefree siblings, unless of course the previsional fantasy of the central act is an illusion. Perhaps time really isn't "a great devil" but "only a kind of dream", with people not its victims but "immortal beings" who are in for "a tremendous adventure".

Kay Conway (Sarah Kirkman) is the lucky one, with the chance to change her life. It's 1919 and, helping to celebrate her 21st birthday are her mother, three sisters, two brothers, and a few friends. Gabrielle Drake is just the ticket as Mrs Conway, quite the merry widow, doting on her dashing son while dismissing his unremarkable brother, and foolishly ambitious for her four daughters.

In the second act, nearly 20 years on (during which time Drake seems curiously to transmute into Julie Walters in Acorn Antiques), the family returns to Newlingham for a business meeting. Another world war is on the horizon; a family confrontation imminent. The glints of jealousy and frustration contained in the younger Mrs Conway are released in poisonous and often wickedly funny put-downs directed at her unhappy, dried-up family. The "tremendous adventure" of the Conways' lives has got to be better than this.

Never mind the Conways, by the way. Time has played its trick on Patricia Routledge, who played Mrs Conway in 1973 when Braham Murray directed the play in Manchester's Cotton Exchange. Previously billed to return to the role to mark the Royal Exchange's 25th anniversary, the 72-year-old actress is instead heeding the tick of the clock and resting, on doctors' advice.

To 19 Jan (0161-833 9833)

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