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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition