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Review Round-up: Julie Walters leads hippy Haussmans

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The Last of the Haussmans, the debut play by Stephen Beresford examining the fate of the revolutionary 60s generation, premiered in the NT Lyttelton last night (19 June 2012, previews from 12 June).

Anarchic, feisty but growing old, high society drop-out Judy Haussman (Julie Walters) remains in spirit with the Ashrams of the 1960s while holding court in her dilapidated Art Deco house on the Devon coast.

After an operation, she’s joined by wayward offspring Nick (Rory Kinnear) and Libby (Helen McCrory), sharp-eyed granddaughter Summer, local doctor Peter, and Daniel, a troubled teenager who makes use of the family’s crumbling swimming pool. Together they share a few sweltering months as they alternately cling to and flee this louche and chaotic world of all-day drinking, infatuations, long-held resentments, free love and failure.

Directed by Howard Davies, The Last of the Haussmans runs in rep until 11 October.

Michael Coveney

“First-time playwright Stephen Beresford… has obviously acquired some good habits when it comes to constructing a scene or, for that matter, the occasional joke. But The Last of the Haussmans, affectionately and patiently directed by Howard Davies, is exposed on the vast Lyttelton stage as a promising debut rather than a seriously accomplished one. Julie Walters plays Judy Haussman… It’s a wonderful role, and Walters seizes it with relish … All similarities with The Cherry Orchard are deliberate and rather obvious: Kinnear’s lackadaisical gay mumbler and former heroin addict harbours weird fantasies of being a weather girl just as Chekhov’s Gaev retreats into his snooker shots. Vicki Mortimer’s spectacular South Coast fastness has all the grime, collected bric-a-brac, fading plants and bunting of a happy haven gone to seed, and the future of this house, replete with memories, is in the balance. Years of free love, bad behaviour, emotional neglect and drug-fuelled routes to paradise have taken their inexorable toll. Not that the arguments hold sway, finally, but it’s slightly depressing to see a play at the National pandering so obviously to the new Puritans and revisionist cultural historians.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“Beresford’s debut is thoughtful and fresh, delighting in the savagery of a dysfunctional family… The performances in Howard Davies’s production are impressively detailed. Helen McCrory has a poised rawness as Libby, perpetually strained by having to help shoulder other people’s burdens. Rory Kinnear brings a feverish intelligence to the fidgety, challenging Nick. And Isabella Laughland’s Summer is a well-judged picture of teenage omniscience. The play itself isn’t perfect. There are moments when it seems contrived, and Daniel appears to be little more than a plot device. But Beresford, previously known as an actor, has a keen ear and is adept at creating scenes full of conflict. His writing drips with smart lines – and pathos, too. By the end The Last of the Haussmans feels like a tribute to Chekhov, mixing spontaneous humour with despair.”

Dominic Cavendish
Daily Telegraph

“Beresford is onto something in this portrait of an incorrigible old hippy whose irresponsibility and residual idealism seem to sum up attitudes far beyond the action’s domestic borders. And his warm-hearted but warts ‘n’ all portraiture is well served by Howard Davies’ production, which brings Julie Walters back to the National for the first time in 12 years... The evening is worth it alone to see this past-mistress at infectious eccentricity dispensing caustic wit and cavalier asides… Although she’s very ably supported by Helen McCrory as the unfulfilled, hard-bitten Libby and Rory Kinnear as the latter’s grandiosely neurotic brother, there’s little disguising the fact that Beresford’s gift for droll dialogue isn’t yet matched by a grasp of dramatic direction. The minor characters… give one little more to chew on than a plate of old lentils. And if at times the play moves into a quasi Chekhovian register of tragicomic regret, at other points it resembles a joss-stick, merely trailing pleasing fumes into the air. Still, there’s always enough going on to keep you tuned in, rather than dropping out."

Libby Purves
The Times

“All through the first half Walters tends blithely towards the caricatures we love her for, alternating fey spirituality, sexual glee and maternal dominance. Add Libby’s stroppy teenage daughter Summer (Isabella Laughland), a taciturn adolescent Daniel who swims in the house pool and is universally lusted after, and an adulterous doctor (Matthew Marsh) who courts Libby and riffs with Judy about his glory days almost seeing Jimi Hendrix. The result, combined with some loose writing and crazy random clothes liberated from binbags, is a reasonably entertaining first half haunted by uncertainty as to where the play is actually heading. Only Rory Kinnear’s brilliant Nick, a nervy, vulnerable, often panic-stricken, gay heroin addict in recovery, held a sense of danger… But after the interval the play gels, despite an odd interlude in which Judy’s cancer drugs derange her. Not only does she recover her articulacy but the play does too, becoming a proper argument about whether muddled Sixties idealism has anything to say. For absurdity and glory can co-exist, and there is wisdom in the old: even old hippies. After revelations (again Chekhovian) about the property’s fate, Walters rises to her serious moment.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

Stephen Beresford’s play (strikingly assured for a debut) is set in a run-down country house in 21st century Devon. Its owner, Judy Haussman (Julie Walters), is a grand, onetime hellraiser who is dying from cancer… As Judy fades, so does the family’s grip on the house – whose mossy disarray is brilliantly caught by Vicki Mortimer’s design… Miss McCrory is fiercely good as love-starved, ageing Libby. Terrific ginny voice. A face deep-lined by desperation. Mr Kinnear’s character is meant to be wildly gay. He did not quite convince me of that but there is a self-containment to Mr Kinnear’s acting, a restraint, that I like. Matthew Marsh, always watchable, plays a lovelorn doctor who keeps visiting. Very Chekhov, although he did without all the effing we have here. The bad language does not quite disguise some slumps in the pace… In alighting on a sense of moral collapse, however, London theatre is certainly on to something.”

- by Rosie Bannister

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