Guylinered Nick (Rory Kinnear) has returned to the family home – a dilapidated British seaside pile that stands out like a sore thumb among a rash of achingly tasteful celebrity-owned houses – dragging behind him a barely-kicked drug addiction and a lifetime of resentment. Waiting for him is his sister and single mother Libby (Helen McCrory). They are here because their mother, Judy (Julie Walters), an ageing hippy who free-loved her way to India and left their childhood in an Ashram, is dying. This isn’t a heart-warming reunion; in this family, blood is no thicker than the booze they knock back for breakfast. But the future of the house – the nearest thing they have to a constant – is in doubt. And Libby won’t give it up without a fight.
Stephen Beresford’s training as an actor shows in his wickedly funny debut play. He is generous to the cast, giving each member an opportunity to slice their way into the spotlight with at least one razor-sharp putdown. The inter-generational fallout of the psychedelic dreams of ’68 is a familiar set-up and the script is laced with traces of everything from the Bible – Libby sardonically refers to Nick as the “prodigal son” – and Chekhov to the observational comedy of Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood. But even if the ingredients aren’t new, Beresford combines them in such a way that they fizz off the stage; here, ending up in Plymouth is a sure sign you have hit rock-bottom and Ritz Crackers are as head-spinning as an Acid trip.
Kinnear is great fun as messed up, gin-swigging Nick, idolised by his mother as an artist but more like a librarian at a fancy dress party than a tortured writer. His voice hoarse and his expression befuddled, he ducks family feuds and falls hysterically in love with Taron Egerton’s tongue-tied pool boy Daniel, a loveably earnest slab of beefcake who turns up crammed into tiny swimming trunks. Daniel has a crush on Libby, who tramples all over her passionless facade by embarking on one destructive affair after another – most recently with Peter (Matthew Marsh), Judy’s smooth-talking married doctor. A taut McCrory wields Libby’s disdain like a defensive weapon, trading barbed comments with Kinnear with precision comic timing. But a thoughtful birthday gift from Daniel disarms her and she flounders around Summer (Isabella Laughland), the embittered teenage daughter pulled along in the wake of her all-consuming resentment of Judy and Nick.
At the heart of this dysfunctional family unit is Julie Walters’s wild-haired Judy, an impish relic of a bygone era dressed in an ancient Snoopy t-shirt. Like the play itself, her performance is not a radical departure from what we have seen before – pitched somewhere between Mrs Overall and Brenda’s horny mother in Dinner Ladies. But she makes Beresford’s words sing, staying on the right side of parody and endearing us to Judy even as we snigger at her. She scampers about the stage with the irrepressible glee of a child, drunkenly threatening her character’s well-heeled neighbours with social revolution, deliberately antagonising Libby and clamouring for sex while on a morphine high.
But while the play’s one-liners hit their mark as the family bicker, its overall tone is less confident; hovering increasingly awkwardly between quick-fire black comedy and something darker. The main problem is that Judy as written and acted simply isn’t a grotesque enough figure to lend weight and substance to the shouted recriminations that erupt over a family meal in the second act. And dark mutterings about her father’s cruelty come to nothing. Without a few skeletons to justify the closet, these scenes feel overwrought and Howard Davies’s otherwise sprightly production loses its bounce and tips into noisy melodrama.
The Last of the Haussmans also has more endings than The Lord of the Rings as an inevitable funeral prompts a series of goodbyes as each family member makes their peace with the past and moves on. It is sentimental and mawkish at times, but Beresford earns this indulgence by having made us care about the characters. And after everything, the last of the Haussmans isn’t Judy. It is Vicki Mortimer’s fantastic set, a fully-realised house which turns as the play progresses to reveal rooms bursting with detail. Faded, cracked and falling apart, CND signs, flags and posters bring it to colourful, quixotic life. It is a character in its own right – one (much like its final resident) flicking a V-sign at the anodyne modern world knocking at the door.
First published by Exeunt Magazine