The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Spring 2012
In 1967 a couple meet-cute – she's actually his older brother's date, but she's a free spirit, brother is a bit stuffy, and so she and the younger guy hit it off. In 1990 they're middle-aged, with teenage kids, and begin to realise they're not as happy as they had planned to be. In 2011 they're happily divorced, comfortably retired, surprised to hear that their adult children are deeply unhappy, and forced to at least consider the possibility that it might be their fault.
Mike Bartlett's play for Paines Plough takes a very long time to really get going, with the first two acts playing like TV sitcom episodes, complete with knee-jerk jokes and sitcom-thin characterisations. Although the divorce is announced in Act Two, it isn't really until the couple's daughter declares her discontent in Act Three that the play really becomes about something.
Has the idyllic, somewhat self-centred life the couple have led been irresponsible or even culpable? The daughter puts the blame on a whole generation: 'And what have you lot done? Climbed the ladder and broke it as you went....You got your cheap flights and your nice cars,...voted in Thatcher,...but here I am, your own daughter, and I can't afford a house, a car, a child....You didn't change the world, you bought it.'
The strength of Mike Bartlett's play, when it finally finds its voice, is that it raises legitimate questions – about the Baby Boom generation, about the do-your-own-thing values of the 1960s, about the implicit selfishness in the central couple's lifelong search for happiness and fulfilment.
The weakness of the play, apart from its taking so long to find its voice, is that Bartlett sometimes seems to want to have his cake and eat it too.
He gives the daughter a legitimate complaint but also an unattractive petulance. He reserves judgement on whether the current generation's economic woes are their parents' fault or just an accident of history. And even after questioning their right to complacent happiness, he gives his central couple a happy ending, as if to say this is just a fairy tale in which nothing but their happily-ever-after really does matter.
The play is right to raise questions and right not to offer simplistic answers, but there is an inescapable air of waffling about Bartlett's allowing so many alternative responses.
Victoria Hamilton has a lot of fun playing what amount to three sequential cartoon characters, the university student playing at being a hippie, the teenagers' nightmare mother, and the harpy still unable to hear anyone else but herself. Ben Miles offers more continuity and a little more depth as his character mellows with age, even if he doesn't actually grow up much. Claire Foy skilfully walks the tightrope of letting us see the daughter's unattractive self-pity and abdication of any responsibility for her own life, while still retaining sympathy for the character and respect for her argument.
Director James Grieve shares credit for these performances, though he can't paper over the cracks between the sitcom-thin early scenes and the suddenly weighty finale.
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