Leo Tolstoy famously said, in the opening lines of his novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That may not be quite true, seeing people laugh with a sense of recognition at the play The Last of the Haussmans. No-one’s family can be quite like this one, yet there is a vicious cut and thrust in family interaction that can leave a stranger gasping in disbelief and laughing at the same time.
This National Theatre production was filmed on the last night of a very long run, and last nights are notoriously over the top affairs. This one was no exception, which when added to a script which piles every possible ill on a horribly dysfunctional family, leads to a rather histrionic show.
Julie Walters on stage for the first time in twelve years was the drawcard here, and playwright Stephen Beresford has certainly created a grand and dramatic role for her. Judy Haussman is a true old hippie, living in decaying splendour in a gorgeous Art Deco house in Dartmouth. It’s an older actress’s dream role. Judy is loud, foul-mouthed, she flashes at the neighbours (not at the audience though!), gets very drunk, makes lewd suggestions at men young and old, goes zombie-like on a morphine overdose and then has a kiss and cuddle with her two estranged kids. If her outsized character were counter-balanced with some rather bland grown-up children, it could perhaps have worked. As it is, her son Nick is a raving camp addict who goes on binges – and the fine actor Rory Kinnear was hamming it up that night, while the daughter Libby (Helen McCrory) is a single mom with bad taste in men. It comes as no surprise that the granddaughter Summer is a shrewish teenager with a venomous tongue. By the time interval comes one is exhausted by the levels of hysterical shrieking, despite some comically awkward scenes.
It’s not every first-time playwright who nets a sterling cast, a long run at the National and a film to boot. Beresford’s script would have been much better served in a smaller venue after being radically trimmed by director and cast. Judy may recall that she has done wonderful things, but there are simply too many of them here. As Nick and Libby trade memories of their childhood, it seems as if Beresford has packed material for at least three plays into one.
The basic premise of a feisty old lady raging at the dying light, while those around her have to come to terms with her impact on them, is the chord that resonates with audiences, but to be honest, Judy’s take on feisty isn’t one that is remembered after the curtain call.
It’s a pity that the National Theatre wasn’t more judicious in funding new writing – as it was with the brilliant piece The Collaborators, also seen on NT Live, which started life in the Cottesloe and then moved to one of the main theatres and a longer run.
Walters looks like she is having a ball with her role, but it is McCrory as the middle-aged daughter who taps the most humanity out of her role, as a woman torn by the opposing pulls of her own needs and those of other generations.
The superb detail of Vicki Mortimer’s set design is one of the major plusses of this production: a sumptuous Art Deco house that has fallen into disrepair, which we see from all angles on the revolving stage. Visually, and more than many words, it encapsulates the essence of this comedy on ageing. If only Beresford had listened to his own lead character and tossed out so much more, he would have found the crisp comedy that lays waiting to be revealed in his work. Director Howard Davies has mounted a technically fine production, but he would have served it better if he also had been less indulgent.