The Last of the Haussmans, Lyttelton, National Theatre, London
Wednesday 20 June 2012
It seems to be open season on the baby-boomer generation in the English theatre at the moment. First we had Love, Love, Love from Mike Bartlett at the Royal Court. Now, in his debut play in the Lyttelton, Stephen Beresford takes a similar, comically sceptical look at the dubious legacy that these folk have bequeathed to their children.
Bartlett's play followed a couple from stoned idealism in 1967 to moneyed retirement now and climaxed on a blame-fest in which their aggrieved 37 year old daughter demanded that they at least compensate her by buying her a house.
The issue of property pervades The Last of the Haussmans in the shape of a large, ramshackle, revolving Art Deco coastal house in Devon that has been wittily designed here by Vicki Mortimer – all bedraggled bunting, Indian drapes, and the jumbled memorabilia of gurus and lovers past.
Sporting a mad grey mane, Julie Walters has an infectious ball as its owner Judy, an upper class former hippy now recovering from a skin cancer scare. Whether flashing her genitals at David Dimbleby (who has a holiday home opposite) with a randy glee, or delivering revolutionary statements with a vague grandeur like some ex-flower-power version of Coward's Judith Bliss, she's a wrinkly, but still determined free spirit, who thinks that private property is a form of covert government control and that residents associations are “worse than the Stasi”.
That's not a view shared by her hardened, bitterly resentful daughter, Libby (excellent Helen McCrory) who feels that, apart from the inability to sustain a relationship, the house is her one maternal heirloom.
Libby has had to develop an armour to cope with the emotional strain of supporting a gay, nervy, recovering heroin-addict brother, Nick (a haunting, self-mockingly lost-romantic Rory Kinnear) and a stroppy teenage daughter (Isabella Laughland) definitively misnamed summer. The play makes several nods towards Chekhov (especially The Cherry Orchard) with its two-timing doctor (Matthew Marsh) and its enigmatic young pool boy (Taron Egerton) who turns all heads during the course of the summer.
Howard Davies's well-orchestrated production can't, however, disguise the faintly prefabricated feel to many of the play's elements. Her son damningly that Judy's generation were too busy “wanking into a chrysanthemum” to notice that Mrs Thatcher was making her entrance. But it's good that, when the crunch comes, his mother's humour proves that her values are not false and have a certain wisdom to impart.
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