By Stephen Beresford
At the Lyttelton Theatre.
Until October 11, 2012
Stephen Beresford is a lucky man. His first play is being staged in the National’s second biggest theatre, the Lyttleton, rather than the Cottesloe ‘studio’ where young playwrights are expected to earn their spurs. The reason, one suspects, is the star casting of box office gold Julie Walters in the lead role. The result, quite pleasingly, is that the play is as good as its eternal star.
Julie plays Judy, an anarchic and feisty hippie, now in her 60s, who dropped out from her respectable store-owning family to find herself in the ashrams of India and the squats of ’70s London. Now holed up in a dilapidated seaside art deco house by the sea in Devon, her rebel spirit hasn’t dimmed. Following a cancer scare she is visited by her wayward offspring and, as her daughter puts it, “She sleeps all day and gets up when she’s hungry, she’s like a f***ing badger”.
Vicki Mortimer’s perfectly realised set for the house, on a great revolve, is one of the highlights of the piece, a stunning temple to faded bohemianism with its posters of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, old car seats out the front, sprouting weeds and murky window panes. It is the future of that property which is the catalyst for the drama as daughter Libby is at the end of her tether and wants to ensure her inheritance. She’s joined by her brother, Nick, (Rory Kinnear in fine form), gay and a wasted heroin addict, who still hasn’t left adolescence behind. The great Helen McCrory brings multiple layers to Libby, swinging between a jaded self assurance and helpless defeat, especially when dealing with her surly but sharp-eyed teenage daughter, Summer (Isabelle Laughland), who’d rather be with her successful father. The third generation might be bourgeois again, much to Judy’s horror.
Judy thinks she has found a new soul mate in the local doctor, Peter (Matthew Marsh), who plays away with both mother and daughter and whose hippie threads mask a more calculating nature. Marsh is wonderfully slippery. Added to the mix is local boy Daniel (Taron Egerton) who uses the pool for swimming training. Appearing to Nick like an apparition in Speedos, his interest, sadly for Nick, lies elsewhere. An outsider, he receives his ‘sentimental education’ among this unpromising lot.
Getting into its stride the play seems to be building up to yet another indictment of the shabby legacy of the ’60s generation and the emotional damage they wrought on their children. However, along the way, Beresford seems to fall in love with Judy and he can’t find it in him to condemn her. Walters’ performance, though wonderfully blousy at times, is also perfectly nuanced and the quality of the piece is in its even-handedness to the characters.
While the contribution of that ’60s generation to culture change might not be robustly enough defended here for some, the piece nevertheless doesn’t hector or judge. In this way it owes much to Chekhov, and in particular The Cherry Orchard, with its portrait of a hapless family not able to cope with the realities of economics. It doesn’t wallow in ennui however and is also laugh-out-loud funny, and it is this razor sharpness which elevates it above its competitors.