Director Rupert Goold, aka the golden boy of British theatre, has taken J.B. Priestley's dramatized theory on the nature of time and threaded it with verve and invention.
It won't, however, be enough to replicate the success of the National's remarkable rediscovery of Priestley's An Inspector Calls which in 1992 went on from this stage to become a West End smash hit.
Yet Goold, who is fast becoming the Trevor Nunn of his generation with the bold Shakespeares here (he won a Best Director Olivier for his Macbeth) and occasional blockbusters there (Cameron Mackintosh entrusted him with the revival of Sam Mendes's production of Oliver!) has made his own point about time with this three-hour production. Like all the best directors, he never lets it drag.
Priestley constructs his play with a conventional three acts. And then having lulled us into a false sense of Chekhovian naturalism, wrenches us through the decades as if strapped to H.G. Wells's time machine, and then back again.
We first meet the Conway family &ampampampndash consisting of four daughters, two sons and one widowed matriarch, played by an imperious Francesca Annis &ampampampndash in optimistic, post war mood in 1919. It is Kay Conway's (Hattie Morahan) 21st birthday. Games are being played and future plans hatched. Hope reigns.
The second act stays in the drawing room but takes us forward to 1938 and pre-Second World War gloom. Kay, once an aspiring novelist, is now a disillusioned 40-year-old gossip journalist. Her siblings have faired no better. Hazel ( Lydia Leonard) is trapped in a marriage to the podgy businessman she so snootily rejected in the first act, Madge (Fenella Woolgar) has lost her socialist principles and Robin ( Mark Dexter), once a dashing RAF pilot is a drunken wastrel. Only meek Alan ( Paul Ready) has hung on to a shred of dignity by staying true to his lack of ambition. And Carol, ( Faye Castelow) the youngest, is dead.
On top of all this the once prosperous Conways are on the verge of financial ruin. It's here where Priestley delivers an unbearable vision of family dystopia consisting of bitter infighting and home truths.
And then with, with Act Three we lurch back to the first scene where, as the author said of his 1937 play, "we know so much more about the characters than they know themselves".
But although Priestley's purpose was to illustrate a theory of time that suggests events &ampampampndash whether good, bad, happy or sad - exist together as opposed to being strung out like passing moments of history, in dramatic terms, the result is hardly the revolutionary result that Priestley claimed.
Dickens knew the poignancy that comes from knowing a character's future before they do. And in the much more recent Dancing in Lughnasa, Brian Friel achieves with one speech that which it takes Priestley three acts to serve up.
But there is something brilliant about the way Goold's production makes this less than brilliant point. Act One ends with the action frozen and revolved like an old 3D stereograph. Act Two ends with the image of Kay standing in front of the drawing room mirror and replicated like an infinity of mirror reflections. Act Three ends even more spectacularly with Laura Hopkins's video design animating Goold's thrilling vision. Priestley is lucky to have him.