Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Last of the Haussmans - National Theatre, Thursday 14th June 2012

Anarchic, feisty but growing old, high society drop-out Judy Haussman remains in spirit with the Ashrams of the 1960s while holding court in her dilapidated Art Deco house on the Devon coast.

After an operation, she’s joined by wayward offspring Nick and Libby, sharp-eyed granddaughter Summer, local doctor Peter, and Daniel, a troubled teenager who makes use of the family’s crumbling swimming pool. Together they share a few sweltering months as they alternately cling to and flee this louche and chaotic world of all-day drinking, infatuations, long-held resentments, free love and failure.
Libby: Helen McCrory
Nick: Rory Kinnear
Summer: Isabella Laughland
Judy: Julie Walters
Peter, Matthew Marsh
Daniel: Taron Egerton

Creative Team:
Written by Stephen Beresford
Director: Howard Davies
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Mark Henderson

How to get your first play seen by thousands of people:

1) Write a part in it for Julie Walters. If the part is broadly similar to how Julie Walters is anyway, so much the better

2) Once she has accepted it, offer it to the National Theatre

However good, bad or indifferent your play is, it will receive national coverage in the reviews and be an almost guaranteed sell out at the box office. If you can manage to base your play on something that has already been written, a lot of your work will already have been done for you by someone else. You can set it in the same provincial town, adapt a lot of the dialogue, re-tread many of the same basic ideas and POW – you will have the punters storming the box office, laughing fit to wet themselves every time your leading lady twitches her left eyebrow. You might further decide to adapt the basic premise of a hit TV show such as “Absolutely fabulous” by having three generations of women all cooped up in the same house throwing one-liners at each other, and further plagiarise the idea by writing in a “gay son” character. Throw in a mysterious doctor (Is he all he seems? Which of the characters is he shagging/will he be shagging?), a cute young boy with “plot device” written all over his Speedos (which of the characters will fall prey to his masculine charms first?) a few problems with paying for the upkeep of the house and a bit about the evils of “equity release”, mix in a bit of Chekovian angst along the lines of “a long hot summer – the last in the old family home before society as the occupants know it breaks down” and all you have left to do is pen a few decently funny lines and you can then pat yourself firmly on the back and tell everyone you have “arrived”. The fact that your play remains as essentially empty and as devoid of any real story as Coward’s Hay Fever need not trouble you as the applause rings in your ears and the box office receipts roll in. Until, of course, people with some kind of critical facility view your play and start to think “hang on a minute….”

Now, I fully realise that this kind of review isn’t going to go down well with some people. Having dragged me to the theatre willingly or unwillingly over the space of the last ten years and thus self-cast himself in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, Him Indoors has started to realise that he has created a monster; one with a rapidly developing critical sense and which he cannot necessarily influence any more. So the interval conversations (the ones which start with “Well, go on then – propound”) are starting to get a bit fraught (to the amusement and/or annoyance of people sitting nearby) and reviews are skimmed through and dismissed as “overly picky”. I don’t expect that he will like this one, either. And perhaps neither will you, dear reader. No doubt in the past you have chortled away at some of my more outrageous offerings but the beast seems to be mutating and I admit that it is becoming harder and harder to write “laugh a minute” reviews. This might be seen as A Bad Thing in some quarters. I try to put the occasional flash of humour or bitchy comment in sometimes, but they ain’t coming so easily these days. Perhaps I am getting old and cynical and should take a long sabbatical from this blog….. don’t think I haven’t considered it.

Aaaaaaaaanyway, I enjoyed The Last of the Haussmans, as did the rest of the audience. This is a decent enough first play, although I think shares all the faults that first plays are subject to. Its too long, slightly too desperate to get its message across, slightly unsure what its message actually is and, most importantly, unsure whether it is a comedy with serious undertones or a serious play with lots of funny one-liners. It is, perhaps, un peu grandiose in many aspects. Beresford may well learn in time how to get a point across to his audience without Hammering It Home Repeatedly And With All The Subtlety Of A Brick, but he hasn’t managed this yet. What the play IS is most definitely a showcase for Julie Walters. If you are a connoisseur of a well turned bon mot a la Victoria Wood that you can throw into various conversations (“She sleeps all day and then gets up when she’s hungry, just like a fucking badger”) then you will like this play. If you venerate Julie Walters as A National Treasure then you will like this play (at this performance, quite a few people ovated and I would imagine that quite a few more ovulated). If you like Rory Kinnear you will like this play. If you are a fan of great set design you will like this play (there is a wonderful set – an entire 1930s Art Deco house complete with messy interior and a garden terrace so untidy and unkempt that I found myself fantasising about taking a bucket of hot soapy water, scrubbing brush, broom and pair of secateurs to it), because during the long, wordy, dull bits (of which there are quite a few) you can let your eyes wander all over it and appreciate how detailed it is (there are even stacks of old boxes in the loft). If that is all you desire from a night out at the theatre, that’s all well and good – you will come away happy and have had value for your money. And that’s exactly what many people want, and exactly what many people who see this play will get. Its funny, its bitter, its sad, there’s the great “each character will now make a long, violently impassioned speech giving us the key to their motivation” scene around the kitchen table, followed very quickly by the “we can solve all our problems if we just believe in each other and love each other” scene, ending in a group hug, lights fade to black moment. Many of the key dramatic moments are underscored with appropriate pop songs should you need them signposted for you. It's decently and competently directed.  But Hamlet it ain’t.

In ten years time the play will probably be a staple of the amateur dramatic scene for directors wanting to do something “a bit more edgy than An Inspector Calls yet again” – The Alexandra Players present The Last of the Haussmans, all this week at the Village Hall. Until then, Julie Walters has a sure-fire success on her hands. But personally I found it as hollow as an Easter Egg, prettily wrapped and well presented but with only the thinnest of chocolate veneers around a completely empty centre.

What the critics said:

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.