Royal Court Theatre, London – until 10 August 2019
When someone next asks me: “What do you do with a Drama degree?” I will respond with: “Ethically, politically, pragmatically or personally?”
On the blurb of the text for The End of History, and in the publicity leading up to the production, much emphasis has been given to the 1997 setting and to Sal and David’s ‘leftist ideals’. This immediately gives us an impression of what to expect: New Labour, Labour of Love, possibly set in the lead up to or immediate aftermath of the election.
But, like with Jack Thorne’s more overtly titled 2 May 1997 (2009), to second guess what the play is going to be would be to falsely label it as more obvious than it is. In fact, the play has three time settings: 1997, 2007 and 2017. The earliest setting is actually in November and sees Sal turn off the radio in worry when Blair’s name is mentioned.
This first act is definitely the funniest. Sal and David have got their three kids back home for dinner. The actual dinner isn’t the main event, and going by what we see and hear of Sal’s cooking it could be a write-off. Their youngest son is in detention, something they’ve encouraged to help him grow out of his experimentation with drugs. Their daughter Polly is back from Cambridge, still holding a grudge at why dad left her so quickly after dropping her off and beginning to feel inferior among the Cambridge elite.
Their eldest son Carl is also coming home from uni, bringing his girlfriend Harriet to meet Sal and David for the first time. Harriet’s from a well-off family, much to the fascination of Sal: “How does someone own service stations… But do you own the – the petrol station… I don’t know, Little Chef?” In fact, I would say it bemuses, even annoys Sal and David that Carl’s brought someone into the house who doesn’t have much of an interest in what her family does.
“David and I have always made the kids take an interest.” Sal, page 17, the end of history…
In this scene, with all its humour and Thorne’s brio at creating and showing us (in such a short space of time) a fully believable and detailed family with a sense of their history and problems and where they are in the world and in their individual lives, I think this above line is crucial.
David and Sal have brought up their kids to encourage them to be the best they can be; being inquisitive and keen to learn is a vital part of that. Books, among them Seamus Heaney poetry, are stacked around the room. There’s a phrenology head. The text also specifies that there are ‘artefacts from Sierra Leone, Hong Kong and Indonesia’ and the ‘odd interesting ripped-out article from a newspaper’ around the room. Two of their children, hopefully the third soon, are at university.
This isn’t Reece Witherspoon in Big Little Lies yelling at her daughter that she must go to college, an education for the sake of credit and enabling a better position in the jobs market. Sal and David believe in education, and the good that it can do. They have debates around the table, quiz their children on famous quotes, make intellectual jokes. It’s entrenched in them that they believe in their children, their values, and that they will make good. Not just good for themselves, but for the world.
‘The challenge is how. The answer is people. The future is people, the liberation of human potential, not just as workers but as citizens’. Tony Blair, 1999.
They’ve lived through these values their whole lives and still live by them in each of the three settings. How these values conflict with their children, who by 2007 are largely leading their own lives and possibly harbouring different political views, is what creates drama, something greatly realised by John Tiffany and the cast. Polly is at the start of a potentially lucrative career, Carl is trying to climb the ladder of Harriet’s (they’re just about together) family business, and Tom is jobless and still living at home. The occasion this time is another family meal. Sal and David have news they want to share, Polly has phoned for a Chinese whilst mum and dad are at a petition, but Harriet ends up having cheese on toast because of her MSG allergy (it’s a mountain of cheese that we see – it doesn’t actually get cooked – Harriet’s the only one who eats some of the Chinese). The news is that Sal and David are not leaving them any of their money in their will, choosing to instead donate it in small parts to charities and the Labour Party. Their argument is strong: they don’t believe in inherited wealth, it only makes the rich richer and the poor no better off, plus the fact they don’t want to leave any of their problems behind. But it doesn’t go down well, especially because of Harriet’s presence in the room. But it’s Laurie Davidson’s reaction as Tom that’s the most interesting. Before bolting himself in the downstairs loo and attempting suicide, he’s at the back of the group most distant to Sal and David, staring into space. You can see his thought process of what this will mean for him. We’ve already seen that he’s not academic, struggling, not a part of the same jokes and references that the others share. For him, this conversely might make him feel like he now has to compete to be conventionally (financially) successful, something which his parents have never pushed onto them. But their reasoning is believable and noble. They do believe in their children, and I think that in performance there was something quite profound and moving about that.
“Fail to develop the talents of any one person, we fail Britain. Talent is 21st century wealth”. Tony Blair, 1999
If anything bugged me about this, it’s that I couldn’t believe it. Maybe because I didn’t recognise my own upbringing or family in the play, maybe because I’m not as politically active as Sal and David, maybe because it can be hard to take something so noble and selfless (although whether it is selfless or not I suppose is another argument) seriously. But in the third act, the decision did make sense. In 2017, the family are preparing for Sal’s funeral. Most of the scene is made up of David’s eulogy for his wife. We hear her whole life, about her upbringing and career and politics and even time spent in prison. She’d lived her life by her politics and however futile one person’s efforts makes to the bigger political game, it suddenly all made sense.
Tiffany’s production transitions between scenes by the cast ripping off calendar dates between small vignettes of them living their lives in that time, all accompanied by an instrumental version of Imogen Heap’s The Quiet (great choice, it is quietly cinematic and suggests movement). Kate O’Flynn transforms from awkward, nasally young adult who absorbs and share’s her parents’ intellect and political leanings to working her way through life and experiencing her own compromises. But it’s Lesley Sharp who has gone the furthest to take her character off the page and into a rhythm where it’s simply like she’s just being the character: her nervous energy and oversharing, her small winces when she realises she’s overdone it, her belief in people to bring about change, however seemingly small. What’s so great about Thorne’s play (as well as his consistently interesting use of stage directions) is that it has made me pause to think but is all wrapped up in this absorbing family comedy.
the end of history… plays at the Royal Court until 10th August, 2019
David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp in the end of history… Credit: Johan Persson