This is a comedy-drama about a family with Julie Walters as ex-hippy matriarch, Judy Haussman. It is set in a large art deco house on an estuary near Bristol in the South-East of England. The setting is important because the other houses nearby are owned by people who want their neighbourhood looking its spanking best but the Haussman's home is, frankly, long past its best.
Judy's gay son Nick (played by Rory Kinnear) returns home at the start of the play to help his sister Libby (Helen McCrory) 'clean-up' the house. Judy is being treated for cancer and has recently come out of hospital. She whiles away the evenings getting drunk in the company of another ex-hippy, Peter her doctor (Matthew Marsh). Libby's daughter, Summer is also staying in the house with her mother, and a shy young man, Daniel (Taron Egerton), trains in the Haussman's swimming pool with ambitions of competing in the sport and escaping the drudgery of caring from his invalided mother.
Like many others, 'The Last of the Haussmans' is a play of two very different halves. The first is very funny and well-written with some clever and witty one liners. Libby's teenage daughter (well played by Isabella Laughland) is a typical adolescent who (supposedly) loathes her mother with a vengeance and the conflict between the two is superbly captured. Julie Walters' Judy is a liberated woman who has spent much of her life practicing free love in india and elsewhere, and wants to “bake her boobs” in the sun, or “f*** off somewhere and take acid”. All pretty good stuff. But when we get to the second half, the pace slows almost to a total standstill by the time Libby meets up with swimmer Daniel near the end. There is confrontation, in the kitchen of course, between the two siblings and their mother. Anger flies through the atmosphere of stale food like sparks from a Van de Graaff generator (you'll have to look that up!) and then it is all over and Nick ends up with his head on Judy's lap. The ending is entirely predictable.
I frequently tell a friend from America – a slavishly obsessed devotee of the National Theatre, and coincidentally called Judy - that she would move in to live in the building if she could. Well, she would simply adore living in the house designed for this play by Vicki Mortimer. It gives the impression of a family who gave up niceties like having 'pride in appearance' years ago (or never heard of the concept), or of people who have forgotten what maintenance means, or how to paint, polish, scrub or any other way of keeping a home looking ship-shape. The once-gorgeous house has been allowed to fall into rambling decay with faded, tattered bunting strewn everywhere and, thanks to Ms Mortimer's meticulous attention to detail, we can even see grass peeping over the large tank at the top of the drainpipe and growing from cracks on the roof and elsewhere. It is a wonderfully-crafted set.
When I am left with unanswered questions or unsatisfactory explanations, it always niggles. Here, there are some apparent inconsistencies, or issues that do not add-up, or just seem odd. First, Rory Kinnear's Nick is terrified of meeting his mother again when he arrives back at the family home. Even the sound of Judy's voice has him dithering and quivering and reaching for the gin bottle. But why? Well, I had expected that Julie Walters' Judy was going to be the mother from hell, maybe sporting an extra eye in the middle of her forehead or shambling about the house with a meat cleaver in hand, or something along those lines. But not so. With her long, flowing grey hair, she could be a female Gandalf and about as kind, at least for the most part. And when Nick eventually meets her face-to-face, the welcome from his mother is warm and generously sincere. So how come he was so worried? My neighbour and I discussed this briefly during the interval, and we expected an answer in the second half, but a satisfactory explanation never came.
Another niggle concerns the cleaning-up of the house. It is suggested that the local council might become involved, but the home is certainly not so filthy or dilapidated that a council inspector would condemn it, even in these times when snooping bureaucracy knows no bounds. Then there's the question of the ownership of the house. Libby thinks her mother is going to sell it so that she will not inherit. Peter the doctor tries to get Judy to make over the house to Libby at once, before she dies. The next thing we hear is that Libby has done an equity-release deal with Peter and when Judy dies, the house will be his. Eh? Well, that may all be possible, but it seemed to happen at a frantic pace, even if the time period of the play is over several months or even years. But the concept didn't make a lot of sense, at least to me. Similarly, Daniel the swimmer turns from being a timid creature who barely speaks, to a globe-trotting sportsman and all because of Judy and a fleeting kiss with Libby. Or did I miss something?
These inconsistencies and oddities cloud the point which Stephen Beresford is trying to make. Is he saying that the way we are raised is not important? Is he saying that irrespective of how we are raised by our parents, we need to carve-out our own lives? I am not sure. What I am sure about is that I would happily watch the first half again, but not the second because it became predictable and a little tedious.
"[Stephen Beresford] knows how to write whacking good parts and has all the benefits of a meticulous National production, but he rarely makes you feel the family he portrays can provide a metaphor for a generation.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The plot is thin and the jokes are often corny, with some of the exposition distinctly unexciting. Yet for the most part the execution is light and wholesome."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Funny, if slightly under-achieved debut play by Stephen Beresford."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Howard Davies's well-orchestrated production can't, however, disguise the faintly prefabricated feel to many of the play's elements."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Actor Stephen Beresford’s first play as a writer is a lovely bit of work. Its comedy is deliciously sardonic."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times