Royal Court Theatre, London – until 10 August 2019
Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany are the Harry Potter team. They know how not to bore. But they’ve been here before too in a Royal Court state-of-the-nation mood, and they can make that just as gripping. HOPE was a wonderful, unsentimental portrait of a Labour council struggling with funding cuts which ended with a boy telling an old man: “It’s possible I will have a better life than you. The world’s sort of pointless, if you don’t try.” And this play picks up that theme of people trying, despite all doubts and clashes of interest and personality, to make the world better.
A cosy, boho, battered family kitchen, trees glimpsed through bricky gaps, holds one family’s reunions in 1997, 2002 and 2017 David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are the parents: children of the spirit of ’68, protest marchers, idealists. He is immersed, over his newspaper, in the shaming statistics of inequality and worried about declining prison education. She is lively, dryly funny, a stranger to “appropriateness”, a Greenham veteran, disappointed in Tony Blair. The children were all named after socialist icons.
As we first meet them, Kate O’Flynn’s Polly is home from Cambridge and whining about giving her bedroom up to the new girlfriend of the eldest Carl, and Tom is in detention for trading hash, The girlfriend, Harriet, is from a property-rich Catholic Family, and Carl needs his pro-choice liberal parents to fund her abortion. Irony piles on irony as the nuances of social distinction and ideology interweave. Zoe Boyle as Harriet, in this and as later as a fed-up wife in the 2002 scene, delivers a masterclass of deadpan distaste in her chilly Sloane reaction to the banter, irritable warmth and familiar allusions of the host family.
Costumes and appearance denote the passing times and changes, though Morrissey is not old until his final, resonant scene in praise of his wife’s life and causes. Which is quite brilliantly written and performed: the old firebrand reformer softened, humanised, unforgettable.
An important achievement is that from the first moments we believe in the individual reality of this family, as firmly as in EM Forster’s Schlegels (to whom they may well owe a debt: certainly Harriet is a Wilcox, representing capitalist pragmatism.) So we follow them, engrossed by the way that the young can never really live up to the shining parental idealism as the 21c world of smartphone sexting and pitiless employment shapes their lives in a way alien to the ‘60s spirit. Polly is chippy, clever, lawyerly, ; Carl disappointed, thwarted, drawn in to Harriet’s world and spat out. But the most wrenchingly real,is the youngest Tom ; Laurie Davidson gives up, in every glance and gesture, a vulnerability that stops your heart.
However, caringly and without spoiling one of the emotional shocks of the play, let me plead with the playwright community to recognise that some modern tropes have run their course and are getting as hackneyed as “The drink! It was poisoned!” used to be in melodrama. I mean the one where there’s a family altercation, and a troubled youth vanishes offstage to bedroom or bathroom . Beat, beat, pause – family look at one another aghast – someone runs off – there’s a shot or a horrified scream. It’s too easy. Mike Leigh has done it, the normally subtler Florian Zeller has just done it. Now Thorne. Enough already! it’s becoming emotionally cheap. And some of us can see it coming minutes early. Capeesh?
Box Office: +44 (0)20 7565 5000 firstname.lastname@example.org
To 10 August