June 20, 2012 6:08 pm

The Last of the Haussmans, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

Sombre moments and deliciously sardonic comedy are expertly blended in this ‘alternative lifestyle’ drama
Matthew Marsh and Julie Walters in ‘The Last of the Haussmans’©Catherine Ashmore

Matthew Marsh and Julie Walters in ‘The Last of the Haussmans’

You never hear anyone arguing that the conventional nuclear family is an inherently bad arrangement on the basis that all you ever see of it on stage or screen or in the news are dysfunctional examples, do you? Well then why make such an argument against (for want of a better term) alternative lifestyles? Admittedly, though, the Haussman family portrayed here is hardly a ringing advertisement for the hippie legacy.

While mother Judy faces her end, unrepentant of her days with the Bhagwan or any of it, her children Libby and Nick approach middle age without ever having found coherent paths for themselves, and now worry that Judy might be about to sell the family’s incongruous Art Deco house on the Devon coast (a wonderful set design by Vicki Mortimer). Libby’s 15-year-old daughter Summer is being a difficult teenager, visiting doctor Peter has one eye on Libby and her curvaceous property inheritance, and neighbour Daniel trains in the family’s pool and catches the eye of pretty much everyone.

Actor Stephen Beresford’s first play as a writer is a lovely bit of work. Its comedy is deliciously sardonic, a fine match for the central trio of actors Julie Walters, Helen McCrory and especially Rory Kinnear. Beresford doesn’t make the anti-permissiveness argument I mention above (although all too many will); rather, he balances the second-act straight-talking scene well between all three, and sums up the play’s own conclusions in a line of Nick’s: “Nobody’s to blame for anybody else’s fuck-ups.” The laughs and the more sombre moments are skilfully blended, and the temptation is resisted to tie matters up nicely in ribbons at the end.

It feels a little odd for the National Theatre. Director Howard Davies is one of the National’s stalwarts, and doesn’t shirk here; nor is there any reason why it shouldn’t stage a new work that has less of a point to make than much of its repertoire. A generation ago, this sort of new play would still have had a chance of a West End launch; the fact that they now need subsidised houses for exposure is an indictment of the timidity of the commercial sector, not of the South Bank. But for the NT, these Haussmans are a bit, well, boulevard.

4 stars

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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