“’Mixed family’ this one says. Something of an understatement”
Sometimes you get to end of a show and just think ‘this is why I come to the theatre’. To be accurate it was my companion for the evening who said it but I was thinking the same thing (honest!) as the company for The Last of the Haussmans took their extremely well-deserved bows. In something of a coup for writer Stephen Beresford, his first play has been given a home in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre and with the kind of superlative cast that most dream of: Julie Walters, Rory Kinnear and, in the most exciting development for yours truly, Helen McCrory. Fortunately, the play lives up to the billing and for me, it was one of the most exhilarating pieces of new writing I have seen for quite some time.
When ageing hippy Judy is diagnosed with cancer, her children return to their Devon homestead to be with her, but this is no sweet family reunion. Recently dumped Libby is embittered about the world, a trait passed onto her stroppy daughter Summer, and seemingly more interested in the prospects of her inheritance and her gay, former junkie brother Nick’s unanchored lifestyle shows no real signs of abating either. Over a few months, the three generations of Haussmans prowl around each other, dissecting the legacy left behind for them in a life full of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and giving us a delicious insight into how the 60s didn’t quite swing the right way for everyone.
It is no secret that I would worship the ground Helen McCrory walks on were I given the chance and she is nothing less than extraordinary here. As Libby, the events of the play coalesce around her and the fierceness with which she burns, whether in love or in anger. I could wax lyrical about so many aspects of her performance, but I shall restrain myself to just a few delicious moments: the look of love that is crushed into despair as her brother pulls hastily away from their first embrace, the casual recollection of a childhood story from India, her many, varied and always soul-brighteningly convincing bursts of laughter. Walters is impressive too but in a completely different way, an unstoppably raucous force of life, with as vivid a turn of phrase as I can remember, determined to do things her way regardless of the consequences to those around her.
Crucial to the success of Haussmans is the awareness that the characters have, of themselves, of their actions, of the impact this has on others. The knowledge that they know they are f*ck-ups and that they are continually f*cking things up means that there’s a transcendental quality at play, which elevates the self-absorption into something infinitely more tragic. Rory Kinnear embodies this beautifully as the heroin-addicted Nick, all eyeliner and worldly swagger but simultaneously deeply insecure and neurotic to the point of paralysis, one really gets the sense of wasted potential from him.
As the representative of the next generation, Libby’s daughter Summer shows all the signs of the cycle repeating itself. Isabella Laughland brings a brilliant surliness and a teenage naïveté to a girl who thinks she knows it all but given the taste of life outside of the Haussmans, the world beyond, the vicious cycle somehow doesn’t seem quite so fixed. Taron Egerton’s Daniel, the taut young swimmer who turns the head of many a Haussman, and Matthew Marsh’s coolly exploitative doctor who has great fun recalling his alleged hippyish youth also provide great support.
Vicki Mortimer’s detailed and very impressive set is almost overwhelming in its level of detail – a decaying art deco house full of the dusty detritus of the Haussman’s lives and travels like swathes of batik fabric and collages of images like the Burt Reynolds shrine and the Indian guru poster. And though it runs at 2 hours 45 minutes, Howard Davies’ production flows with a luxurious silkiness that never once had me looking at my watch. I was surprised at how lukewarm the critical reception for this play was, and that has been reflected in a diverse range of reactions from amongst my friends who have seen it. Undoubtedly, it comes at a time when Love Love Love had covered somewhat similar ground and I suspect that influenced a few people, but for me, this was a truly exceptional piece of richly layered and gorgeously written theatre that will undoubtedly feature in my end of year round-ups.