The Last of the Haussmans
National Theatre, London SE1
It’s not Terms of Endearment, the stroppy daughter tells her druggy brother when he returns to the family home upon news that their mother is suffering from melanoma. Libby, played by Helen McCrory as an upper-class screech owl, is not wrong. Leave your Kleenex travel pack at home: this is the least sentimental deathbed comedy you will see. But what else is it? It is certainly not the slice of dynastic Jewish nostalgia that the play’s title suggests.
There is no sign – apart from that above their original hardware shop – that the Haussmans are even Jewish. But is the play quite the assassination of the values of 1960s hippie culture, as embodied in Libby’s and Nick’s mother, Judy, that other critics have seen – a bookend to Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love a few months ago?
Stephen Beresford’s more than accomplished debut as a playwright is without doubt fuelled by hate, which is its own kind of joke against peace’n’love. “Wanking into a chrysanthemum”, as Nick summarises it, has not provided effective parenting. Libby, in her forties, falls in and out of relationships and has a terrible one with her contemptuous daughter, Summer, who in the end chooses affluence and her estranged father. Nick is an addict whose idea of breakfast is a “light” cider. He has a jobless, rackety existence and develops hopeless crushes on unavailable men, such as his mother’s “pool boy”, actually a local youth who uses the pool for swimming practice.
Rory Kinnear plays Nick, and Kinnear never gives a bad performance but he is too sturdy and well-looking for a role that requires emaciation and facial devastation. What Nick and Libby have in common (apart from, for a moment, an interest in the pool boy) is hatred for their mother.
Enter Julie Walters. You almost want to say enter-to-applause Julie Walters but this is the South Bank, not the West End, and Walters does not milk the part of Judy, the hedonistic, guru-following, sexually liberated old junkie now getting ill from all that sun worship. When she emerges from her dilapidated, art deco home in South Devon, her hair hangs in long, silver, gory locks but she wears a Snoopy nightdress – a combination that suggests that age has caught up with her, yet she is still a child. She loves her children theoretically but, having given birth to them amid the distractions of the ashram trail, hardly seems to know them. When the corrupt, ex-hippie local doctor, with whom both she and Libby fandangle, gets her pain relief wrong, she treats her delirium as one last perceptive acid trip.
As a charismatic with all the wrong values, however, Judy, as played by Walters and written by Beresford, is no “Rooster” Byron from Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Her language is not inventive enough and her enthusiasm for her causes not nearly so playfully infectious. But, like Butterworth in that play, I believe Beresford is of the devil’s party.
Judy, although she is dying, is his only truly happy character. The elixirs she discovered in the 1960s – sex, drugs, eastern religions, charitable works and the belief that things could and should be a-changin’ – may have done nothing for society or her family but they have evidently worked for her. She also gets one genuinely powerful speech, which is far more convincing than Nick’s counterblast that Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms were the true revolutionaries. Property, she says, is “the greatest agent of control ever devised by any government anywhere – get people to care about their property and you don’t even have to police the state”. It is the idea that property ownership, the love of it, is the root of all evil that is the heart of this play and translates its title.
Everyone apart from Judy cares about this house and who will end up owning it. Judy, who cannot even bother to envy David Dimbleby’s new extension across the bay, laughs hysterically when she learns that she no longer owns it. The play ends with the smashing sound of Nick trying to get into a secret drinks cabinet (some cabinet) indoors, just as The Cherry Orchard ends with the sound of axes being taken to the trees.
Beresford, whose use of a doctor is another homage to the master, is no Chekhov, nor, as yet, a Butterworth, but I shall remember Vicki Mortimer’s magnificently designed, peeling Bauhaus on its revolve long after anything else has muddled in my mind. The Last of the Haussmans is about a house and how little houses matter. Judy, in her vagrant years, streaks of shit down her tights, was more nearly right than her children will ever be able to concede – and far less deracinated.