August: Osage County, National Theatre: Lyttelton, London

5.00

Riveting roller-coaster is an American classic

Having won six Tony awards on Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize for its author, Tracy Letts, August: Osage County was asking for its comeuppance on arrival at the National Theatre.

Much as I'd like to kick-start a chorus of disapproval, the most I can do is nitpick about the final moments of the play, for this stunning import from Steppenwolf in Chicago is indeed one of the truly great nights of American theatre.

It's high hot summer in Osage County, the "native American" term for the Oklahoma plains west of Tulsa, where the suffocating temperature is too much even for Violet Weston's string of parakeets, all of whom have fallen off the perch. Vi's a pill-popping matriarch, drifting away from her family in a miasma of drug-induced dopiness but full of sudden vicious anger over daughters who return home after high-tailing it away to Colorado and Florida.

The family gathers for a reunion caused by a funeral. It's no accident that Vi's husband Beverly, a clapped-out 1960s poet and academic, is quoting TS Eliot at the Cheyenne housekeeper he's just hired in the first scene. This girl, Johnna, silently serving the meals when not locked away in the attic, and beautifully played by Kimberly Guerrero, is sensible enough to keep her own family in memorial form, along with her own umbilical cord tucked into a broach worn round her neck.

In contrast, the Weston crowd are a noisy mob. Even the quietest middle-aged daughter, Sally Murphy's oppressed Ivy, is subjected first to a maternal lecture on not wearing make-up – "The only girl pretty enough not to wear make-up was Elizabeth Taylor; and she wore tons of it" – and then to criticism of her black trouser-suit for the funeral. No wonder she's developed an incestuous crush on her first cousin, the equally battered "Little" Charlie (Ian Barford).

Big Charlie, his dad, is an upholsterer saddled with Vi's sister, the riotously raucous Mattie who, in Rondi Reed's knockout performance, is also harbouring a dark secret. And in Ivy's sisters Barbara and Karen, we see the classic guilt-peddling syndrome of birds flying the nest only to return and find themselves blamed for taking wing thanks to their parents' efforts.

London hasn't seen an ensemble acting troupe of this quality for many years – probably not since Steppenwolf last came to the National in 1989 with their definitive The Grapes of Wrath – and Amy Morton as Barbara, and Mariann Mayberry as Karen, show you why.

Morton's Barbara is a college librarian in Boulder, Colorado, whose teacher husband Bill (Jeff Perry) is having an affair with a student. As the play develops, their marital crisis seeps into Morton's astonishing performance of despairing strength, while her own pot-smoking teenage daughter (Molly Ranson) grows apart and closer to the housemaid. Mayberry's Karen is an estate agent in Florida whose family ties have been tainted with West Coast superficiality and the acquisition of a deeply untrustworthy fiancé (Gary Cole); the emotional mix on stage becomes potentially explosive.

The recital of grace at the dinner party after the funeral becomes as fraught and hilarious as the one in Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, while the bitching over status symbols and past indiscretions has all the hallmarks of a wild conjunction of Albee and O'Neill. At root, Vi's plaintive, accusatory wail that "we lived too low and rose too high" sums up the anxiety over self-improvement and mobility in a country that has lost its way spiritually both in the home and on the world's stage.

Anna D Shapiro's production is a masterpiece of mood, control and impassioned outbursts as the play seems to start spiralling into ever crazier revelations and violence. I was puzzled only by the ambiguous exit of the exhausted Barbara and the strained manufacture of a final pieta as Johnna cradles the whimpering, unreformed and justly abandoned Vi. But the evening is a riveting three-and-a-half hour roller-coaster on designer Todd Rosenthal's three-storey country house you would be mad to miss. The National has excelled itself by hosting the year's most memorable play.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?