Friday 6 July 2012

The Last of the Haussmans at the National, or, An Oddly Personal Experience

At the interval of this play I was feeling rather lukewarm towards it. There was a stagey quality to Stephen Beresford's writing which left me feeling emotionally disengaged. Julie Walters seemed to be playing another version, almost a caricature, of her part in Dinnerladies, and other parts were unevenly played. But in Act Two two strange things happened.

The first surprise was the sudden flashing presence of Quakerism. Near the beginning of the play a character is mentioned “who was a glue sniffer and is now a Quaker.” As a Quaker myself I found this funny. But in Act Two there's a moment when Julie Walters suddenly describes what seems intended to be a transformative experience for her character, Judy. Up to that point its been all hippies and drugs and ashrams, but now we are at a peace group in Belsize Park. The character describes a Quaker coming to talk to them essentially about the light of God being in everyone and that if all those lights could join together the world could be changed. Her light, Judy insists, has never gone out whatever else may have been mistaken or gone wrong. I am not evangelical about my faith, though it is something that is very important to me on a personal level. As a Quaker you get sort of used to the fact that there isn't much reference to it in popular culture and generally speaking this isn't something that worries me. So I think my strong reaction to this moment was partly one of surprise – it was so unexpected to hear one of the central tenets of the Quaker faith being put forward from the stage of the Lyttelton. Unexpected and somehow very moving.

The second surprise was again a very personal one. Much of the second act, and the strongest scene in the whole play sees Julie Walters and her two children McCrory and Rory Kinnear castigating one another remorselessly for screwing up each other's lives. There is always somebody else to blame. On this occasion it is to Kinnear to whom the crucial line is given - “Nobody,” he declares, “is responsible for anyone else's fuck ups.” I can't really go into why this resonated with me but I can only say that again it was surprisingly moving.

There are plenty of issues with this show. It's another new play which is unwieldy, needed an editor, and struggles with its ending (a common problem so far this season). The performances are uneven – Rory Kinnear's Nick and Isabella Laughland's Summer are the pick of the bunch, Walters is much stronger in the second half, McCrory just lacks somehow that quality of genuineness that really makes you believe. Yet somehow, there is a burning important statement about humanity and light that will keep breaking through. For that reason, this is well worth seeing.

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