Serenading Louie, and 11 and 12

A snapshot of 1970s Chicago is poignant yet unconvincing.

To write a play as jaded as Serenading Louie you would, I had suspected, need to be very young. In fact, Lanford Wilson, one of those Nobel prizewinners most of us are vague about, was 33 when it was first performed in 1970, the same age as the four characters whose marriages it mercilessly flails. In his introduction to a new edition, he admits, however, that the play was composed from fragments of dialogue he had eavesdropped during his first jobs in ad agencies. As a child of a divorce, how Wilson must have relished hearing his every bitter prejudice about marriage confirmed!

The play's puzzling title is taken from an old Yale song briefly sung by the quartet (graduates of the inferior Chicago Northwestern); its key line is: "We are poor little lambs who have lost our way." In consequence of the randomness with which it was written, plotting is not its strong point. It takes time for us to learn, and even longer to care, that Alex, the crusading lawyer contemplating a political career, has fallen in love with a pert young student - and it is a relief to be let in on this, as his hatred for his loyal if talkative wife Gabrielle has hitherto appeared unearned. His college friend Carl, in contrast, is deeply in love with his wife, Mary (Geraldine Somerville), who is having an affair. When, in the final ten minutes, the plot gathers itself and hurtles towards a tragic conclusion, it becomes ridiculous. It is a shame, for by then Serenading Louie has successfully explored a new form, something nearer encounter therapy.

It befalls Charlotte Emmerson as Gabby to kickstart proceedings and she wobbles a little in a distracted monologue whose climax is her spotting a drunken fly on the windowsill. The fly is in the same state of spiritual lassitude as Gabby and her friends. Nothing flies for anyone. Love, says Alex (played by Jason Butler Harner, very uncomfortable in his own skin, or at least his suit), "is only a neurosis everyone agrees to have together". Carl (Jason O'Mara) considers it unlikely that his teenage hunch that God exists is correct. Politics, both men agree, is a fix. Alex complains that even sex no longer works for him; the two couples see Deep Throat and hate it. Only nostalgia and the booze flow easily. When Carl was 12, he recalls, the whole country prayed for a little girl who had fallen down a well. Such a feat of collective focus would never happen now (except it did, Carl forgets, for the moon landing in 1969).

The couples, in an Ayckbourn-style device, live in identical Chicago apartments. This necessitates only the one set, and halfway through Act II the characters begin to occupy the same space and time, as if haunting one another's lives. The play has become a single conversation about why the American dream ain't all it is cracked up to be. The drunken or dope-fuelled whining sometimes grates but the acting, although uneven, finds sincerity and power in Wilson's dialogue. Serenading Louie is an emotional snapshot, but the director, Simon Curtis, makes it a sharp portrait.

As a night out, Serenading Louie's narcissistic dilemmas certainly beat the pseudo-profound moral certainties offered by the octogenarian director Peter Brook in 11 and 12, a play by Marie-Hélène Estienne, showing at the Barbican. In different hands, this true fable of Africans bashing each other up over an abstruse dispute about whether a Muslim prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times might make superb black comedy. Here, however, the Sufi leader who converts from Elevenism to Twelvism, Tierno Bokar (Makram J Khoury, so pious you want to belt him) is treated with the respect that the theatrical guru Brook no doubt believes due himself. The real villains, naturally, are a succession of bemused French governors.

Brook is convinced that theatre can be both a religious and a dramatic experience. This is neither. You'd have to be 84 and living in Paris to get away with it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.

“Serenading Louie" is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 27 March. “11 and 12" is at the Barbican, London EC2, until 27 February, and then touring.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.