|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
It isn't often one walks into the auditorium of the Royal Court to be confronted by a copiously draped red-plush curtain concealing the stage. Aren't front "tabs" (as they are called) passe in the subsidized theater? And have been for years?
Nor is it customary for this particular venue to stage plays that require three very different, very solid sets and two intermissions to erect them.
Most striking of all, though, is the fact that, during the first act of Mike Bartlett's Love, Love, Love you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the West End enjoying the equivalent of a safe TV sitcom rather than an innovative new piece of writing in London's most forward-looking space.
Consider. The curtain goes up (literally) on a shabby, squalid-looking flat in North London. It's 1967. The flat is owned by a rather uncharismatic 23-year-old called Henry (Sam Troughton), whose pot-smoking 19-year-old brother Kenneth (Ben Miles), at Oxford on a grant, has moved in with him for the summer holidays. Henry and Kenneth are chalk and cheese in every way, the differences in their personalities emerging in high-definition when Henry invites 19-year-old Sandra (Victoria Hamilton), whom he really fancies, back to the flat for a meal. Kenneth agrees to keep out of sight, but of course the minute Sandra arrives and, predictably, shows more of an interest in Kenneth than in his brother, he stays put.
Sandra, who is also at Oxford, is an ardent feminist and the walking embodiment of the mid-60s, freewheeling woman who cannot understand why she was sacked from her temporary job in a trendy dress shop for serving a customer while high on pot.
When Henry reluctantly pops out to buy fish and chips for dinner, Kenneth and Sandra embark on a spot of physical bonding. Their timing couldn't be worse, and after Henry walks in on them mid-snog, he exits out of their lives in a proverbial huff, leaving them to plan the rest of their summer together. End of act one.
Now I ask you, is that the stuff of TV sitcoms or what?
Act two takes place in 1990. Kenneth and Sandra are married. Money is tight, and the best Kenneth can afford for his wife and kids – 16-year-old Rose (Claire Foy) and 14 year-old Jamie (George Rainsford) – is a semi-detached on the outskirts of Reading, whose name, by the way, received the biggest guffaw of the evening. Go figure.
It's Rose's birthday and, shortly after Rose blows out the candles on her cake, Sandra, out of the blue, informs her offspring (as well as her unsuspecting husband) that she is suing for divorce.
The third act takes place in 2011. Kenneth is living with Jamie (now a useless, seriously disturbed 35-year-old) in a large country house complete with a swimming pool. Rose, who earns a mere £20,000 a year as a freelance violinist, is deeply unhappy and unfulfilled and is trying to persuade her father to buy her a house. Sandra, meantime, is into fitness and enjoying everything money can buy with a man she doesn't love. The play ends with the decided possibility of Kenneth and Sandra getting back together again.
But hang on a minute! As the playwright in question is Bartlett, you know there has to be more to this soapy scenario than meets the eye.
What Bartlett is writing about is the baby-boomer generation between the mid-60s and early 80s and the consequences of believing we, (yes, I was one of them) were living in the best of all possible worlds. No doubt about it, Swinging London was the place where dreams came true. All you had to do was have the dream in the first place. Music, fashion, theatre, art and design were cutting edge. There was no time or place like it. Everything was possible.
That's the truth. The consequences, Bartlett seems to be saying, is that an entire generation paid for their self-absorption by producing another generation of less fortunate offspring who believed their parents (and the world) owed them a living. I'm not sure I agree with him.
Either way, though, I find it odd that in the course of nearly three hours, we never learn exactly what Kenneth's line of work is. In act two, when he is 42 and, presumably, at the peak of his earning power, he is struggling to pay his kids' school fees. Yet in 2011 he's retired, drawing £60,000 a year and living a life of luxury. How did that happen? When did that happen? Given what we know about Kenneth, was it even likely to have happened? I wanted to know so much more about these people.
Kenneth's courtship, marriage and early years with Sandra are taken for granted. We're also short-changed by being told practically nothing about his life after the divorce.
Still, as unsatisfying (and at times even unconvincing) as the 44-year narrative span turns out to be, I have nothing but praise for the remarkable cast assembled by director James Grieve. It cannot be easy to convince as both a 19-year-old and a 63-year-old, but Hamilton and Miles pull it off with remarkable conviction. Ditto Troughton and Rainsford as their troubled offspring.
Lucy Osborn contributes a trio of period-perfect sets, and Grieve's direction ensures that the play's three acts speed by entertainingly enough.
Though Love, Love, Love is far from perfect, heaven knows, I've been to much shorter plays at this venue that have seemed three times as long.