Review: Love, Love, Love

Andrew Billen is engaged by a monstrous couple born at the right time.

New Statesman
"Love, Love, Love" by Mike Bartlett is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 9 June.

Love, Love, Love

Royal Court, London SW1

Now and again, as the movie tells us, a star is born. I am not quite sure if that happened for Victoria Hamilton last week at the Royal Court. She has won too many awards to count as an overnight success, in any case. But, with her rendition of Sandra, one of the two leads in Mike Bartlett’s anti-love story, Love Love Love, a monster, certainly, was born. Sandra, a brimming receptacle of vanity, selfishness, ruthlessness, self-righteousness and alcohol, is played by Hamilton with a vigour and exaggeration that at first threatens to overwhelm the play but becomes its X-factor. She is almost as enjoyable as Alison Steadman’s Beverly in Abigail’s Party, though Sandra satirises the bourgeoisie, not the lower middle classes. Hamilton/Sandra is not in the same league as Mark Rylance/Brewster or Kevin Spacey/Crookback but she is right at the top of the next division.

So congratulations to her but also to Ben Miles who plays Ken, with whom she spends 40 argumentative years in love. Thanks to Miles’s own vigour, not once do you question why Ken should fall for this monster. Likes attract and Ken – although from the other side of the tracks to Sandra – is monstrous himself. A working-class boy at Oxford, he is greedily aware of the world opening up for him; a point symbolised by his watching, when we join him, Our World, a concert broadcast by satellite to some 400 million. (During it, the Beatles first sang “All You Need is Love”, from whose lyrics the play’s title is taken). The first opportunity to seize is Sandra, the Chelsea girl, and he takes her from under the nose of her boyfriend, his brother Harry. In 1990, in the second act, deep in the plod of parenthood and mortgage, he has an affair and, tit-for-tat, she divorces him. In the third, set in the present day, Ken, now affluent and retired, steals her back from her second husband.

Bartlett’s three eras require some suspension of disbelief from the audience. Make-up and agility – Miles, who in fact is in his mid-forties, does some athletic sofa-jumping as the young Ben – can only help so much. On the other hand, since Bartlett’s subject is the invincibility of the Beatles generation, Ken and Sandra’s retarded ageing is not entirely inappropriate. Better fed, better educated, better cared-for than their parents, today’s 70-year-olds are the freshest faced ever.

As a thesis, the idea that this generation of so-called liberals ushered in decades of me-me-me-ism, broken marriages, materialism and moral chaos is not exactly original. Bartlett sometimes pushes it too far. Sandra’s total lack of interest in her children is pathological, not indicative. Nor has their financial good luck gone unremarked. David Willetts’s 2010 book, The Pinch, examined the phenomenon of a generation made rich by oil, property and technological revolution, whose predisposition to live long and beyond their means will impoverish generations to come.

When at the end, in the present day, their daughter Rose, done in a fine turn by Claire Foy, demands her divorced parents buy her a house, they reply with speeches on the Samuel Smiles theme of self-help. This must present any Daily Mail readers watching with a problem: do they agree with Rose’s spirited attack on her parents (all they stood for was “doing what the fuck they wanted”) or theirs on her (she wants to be rich and famous but “never lifts a fucking finger”). Not that I would guess there were many Mail readers there. The biggest laugh – a roar of agreement more like – was occasioned by Ken’s line in act two: “We live in Reading. Something must have gone wrong.”

The play is what used to be called well-made, although its style – and this may be director James Grieve’s intention – changes from act to act, beginning almost as pastiche of John Osborne, becoming in act two an Edward Albee fight, and ending as tidily and with as much exposition, as Rattigan. There are some loose ends, too, such as how precisely Ken got from suburbia to a country house at the end (although the set and lighting makes it look more like a Mediterranean villa). But the drama is largely satisfying and manages to say something fresh about love. Couples so wrapped up in themselves that they think their love is all they need, are liable to become monsters indeed.