Flower Power Sags in London
Sunday, July 1, 2012
New York Times' Ben Brantley on BOYS and trends in London theatre
LONDON — The calendar kept by the theater here is as unforgiving as time itself. This season it is confirming, with withering wit and sociological specificity, that youth is never evergreen. Winter, you see, has finally arrived for the flower children of the 1960s.
Mike Bartlett’s “Love, Love, Love,”which ended its hit run at the Royal Court Theater this month, tracked a couple’s descent through four decades, from the incense-scented idealism that brought them together as university students to the insular materialism of their late middle age. “The Last of the Haussmans,” a first play by Stephen Beresford, which opened this week at the National Theater, portrays an unregenerate hippie mother (Julie Walters, no less) in the psychedelic-colored sunset of her life.
The destinies of the characters played, rather delectably, by Victoria Hamilton and Ben Miles in “Love, Love, Love” and by Ms. Walters in “Haussmans” are hardly the same. But they have one definite and damning thing in common: They have pretty much destroyed their children’s chances for a happy adulthood. Peace and love to you too, Mom and Dad.
Blaming the parents is one of the primal dynamics of world theater, from “Antigone” (also at the National) to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (currently in revival at the West End). Two of the most vibrantly acted productions I’ve seen here have presented portraits of rudderless students, from different strata of the class system, contemplating the bankrupt future left them by their elders: Ella Hickson’s “Boys” and Laura Wade’s “Posh.”
Both of those shows, for the record, include climaxes that involve the wholesale trashing of their sets. Such destruction is presented not only as an act of desperation (and high spirits, in all senses of the term) but also as a natural response to the legacy of earlier generations. For the upper-class university students in “Posh,” you might even say it’s their birthright. At the same time, these kids seem to be shadowed by visions of the depleted selves they will be when youth is spent. These are not comforting specters.
For the first half of “Haussmans,” directed by Howard Davies, I was purring in tickled contentment because the fine-tuned cast was so functionally dysfunctional. In addition to Ms. Walters as Judy, a hedonistic mystic with a rock ’n’ roll rebel’s spirit, there are Helen McCrory and Rory Kinnear, two of the finest actors of their generation, as Libby and Nick, the now (technically) adult children Judy left behind to follow her bliss.
Libby has her own judgmental daughter, the 15-year-old Summer (Isabella Laughland), and a passion for dangerous daddy figures. Nick is a semi-recovering heroin addict with a predilection for nail polish and eyeliner. Now the clan has reunited (if it could be said ever to have been united) in the decaying coastal home that Judy inherited from her disapproving middle-class parents. (Vicki Mortimer’s set is a marvel of festooned seediness.)
Mr. Beresford, an actor, writes eminently actable dialogue: the kind in which surface wit is rooted in deep ambivalence. The ensemble members, who also include Matthew Marsh as a local doctor who appears to be in love with the whole Haussman family, bring a wonderful, prickly interconnectedness to their characters. Ms. Walters, looking like a puckish, late-career Judy Collins, doesn’t disguise the unrepentant selfishness in what could well have registered as a too-cute crazy-granny part.
Ms. McCrory, who exudes tough and defensive sex appeal, and Mr. Kinnear, who turns trembling vulnerability into a form of attack, are terrific at conveying the mutual, shaky dependency of resentful siblings. And I liked the way that each of the Haussmans was drawn to a firm-fleshed teenage boy (Taron Egerton), an embodiment of the youth that they have lost but that they believe they still, on some level, possess.
But in the second act, as the skeins of the story are gathered into patterns, it becomes clear that Mr. Beresford is better at individual scenes than at shaping them into a whole. A subplot from “The Cherry Orchard” that comes to the surface here feels imposed. And while it’s admirable that Mr. Beresford sees fit to bring his scrapping family members into a state of something approaching grace, the play doesn’t earn the moments of recognition that it gives them. It starts to feel bizarrely as if Chekhov had been brought in to rewrite an episode of “Absolutely Fabulous.”
First staged provocatively in the election year 2010 at the Royal Court Theater, “Posh,” which has been transplanted to the West End at the Duke of York’s Theater, dares to portray a notorious exclusive dinner club that appears to be awfully like one to which the eminent statesmen David Cameron and Boris Johnson had belonged in their, er, salad days.
There is no way to read “Posh” as other than an indictment of an overly entitled ruling class that feels its privileges are under siege. Like the Tory party, the Riot Club, founded at Oxford in the 18th century, had been in the wilderness, disbanded because of one member’s indiscretions. Now it has been reconstituted, and the Riot Club is once more sitting down to one of its fabled hard-drinking, room-wrecking ceremonial dinners.
Though directed with flash and crackle by Lyndsey Turner and acted to the snarling teeth by its young cast, “Posh” outstays its welcome. The production is best when it wanders off the road of straightforward political allegory into blissfully poisoned musical sequences in which the cast delivers rap numbers in the style of a close-harmony glee club. The subversion here is in the telling incongruity of form and content.
Otherwise, two and a half hours seems like an awfully long time to keep being shown how nasty these boys are. The staging and the finely individuated acting keep the show on its feet. But by the end, you may feel as if you were watching a drawn-out British reality show, “Toffs Behaving Badly.”
“Boys,” a production of the Headlong, HighTide Festival and Nuffield Theaters that recently ended its run at the Soho Theater, takes place during a sanitation strike in Edinburgh, and garbage keeps mounting in and around the flat of its college-age title characters. Ms. Hickson — who made a mark just out of university in 2008 with “Eight,”snapshots of no-hopers on the edge of adulthood — has now created a full-length, traditional drama about youth in a state of both crisis and stasis.
The script of “Boys” is as cluttered as Chloe Lamford’s very convincing set. In following a concentrated spree of post-finals, pre-graduation revelry, Ms. Hickson crams in several warehouses’ worth of plot and symbols. But melodrama is the metabolic right of people nearing the ends of their adolescence (which seems to extend beyond 30 now). And the superlative cast, directed by Robert Icke, embodies the roller-coaster rhythms of that metabolism, enhanced by various stimulants and depressants, with all the spontaneity and self-consciousness of last-gasp youth.
It helps that Ms. Hickson has an inspired ear for the snark, silliness and whimsy marshaled by people trying to avoid thoughts of their future. The insults they exchange have the ring of stoned originality as well as of authenticity. (“Aren’t you lovely when you’re angry? You’re like a very troubled tomato.”)
When, after much drinking and drugging, the characters explode into a wondrous, frightening, garbage-flinging free-for-all, middle-aged viewers may find themselves muttering both “Ah, to be young again” and “Thank God I’m not young anymore.”