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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Taron Egerton and Julie Walters/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

The theater shouldn’t be a pulpit, but there is a theme doing the rounds – that the sins of the parents are visited upon their children – that comes close to sermonising. Just weeks ago the Royal Court offered us Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love, in which a pair of 60s baby-boomers were held responsible for ruining their offspring’s lives, and now comes the National’s variation on the same theme. It’s called The Last of the Haussmans, by rookie playwright Stephen Beresford, and while it’s a more engaging piece than Love, Love, Love, the territory is familiar.

The setting is a crumbling art deco home on the South Devon coast owned by divorcee Judy Haussman (Julie Walters), a still-rebellious, free-spirited, albeit ageing, hippie straight out of the ashram-living, flower-power generation.

A cancer scare, which initially is nothing more than a slight melanoma, is the catalyst that brings together a dysfunctional family comprising her 40-something daughter Libby (Helen McCrory), Libby’s stereotypically rebellious teenage daughter Summer (Isabella Laughland) and Nick (Rory Kinnear), Libby’s alcoholic, drug-addicted gay son, who, like both his mother and sister, is incapable of sustaining any kind of meaningful relationship.

Very early on, the play’s dynamic – an unhappy family at war with itself – is established in full-blown, high-velocity exchanges by all concerned, with two additional characters padding out the dramatis personae – a local married doctor (Matthew Marsh) enamoured by both Judy and Libby, and neighbour Daniel (Taron Egerton), a promising 19-year-old swimmer who has been allowed to train in the the Hausman’s swimming pool and who is secretly infatuated with Libby.

Daniel’s appearance also allows Nick to fall unrequitedly in love with him, which of course does nothing to improve his already fragile, self-loathing state of mind.

The play’s time-scale is somewhat vague, though in the course of its two acts, Judy’s melanoma develops into full-scale cancer – and death. What passes for plot pivots on Libby and Nick’s concerns over the future of the family home – unsatisfactorily resolved when Libby misguidedly agrees to dispose of it via an equity release.

There is no question that Beresford has an excellent ear for dialogue, much of which is very funny and droll. But at two-and-three-quarter hours, the play meanders and lacks a cohesive dramatic momentum. And while Beresford is never at a loss to articulate his characters’ problems and frustrations, he never quite finds that all-important conduit that goes straight to an audience’s heart.

Yes, I did care about Judy Haussman and her brood – but not enough to have my emotions as engaged as, say, Arthur Miller engages them in Death of a Salesman, one of the greatest of all family dramas.

Beresford lucks out, though, on the quality of the production the National has lavished on his play. With masterly direction by Howard Davies, a stunningly evocative set by Vicki Mortimer and a quality cast headed by Walters – lured back to the National after a 12-year absence by a stonkingly showy central role she clearly relishes – this is a young playwright’s dream debut.

Beresford is currently working on a second play for the National. I await it with great anticipation.


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