A LETTER FROM LONDON: London Wonderground, Miriam Margolyes, The Last of the Haussmans and More

By Ruth Leon
17 Sep 2012

Helen McCrory, Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear in he Last of the Haussmans.
Photo by Alastair Muir
The Last of the Haussmans, a first play by actor-director Stephen Beresford at the National Theatre, is a soap opera narrowly retrieved from domestic comedy by outstanding performances from every actor on the stage. There is no plot, except a minor one about a family house being left, or not being left, to two grown-up children, or perhaps being sold to a local doctor — but, truly, it doesn't signify. It is a set of character studies of the fallout from the hippie culture of the '60s and '70s. Julie Walters, in a finely detailed turn as a drugged-out Joan Baez freak who has never grown out of her wild-child past, is the mother of exactly the children you'd expect her to have: Nicky, an irresponsible alcoholic and former heroin addict (another wonderfully judged performance from Rory Kinnear), and Libby, an uptight, sexually profligate control freak (Helen McCrory at her imploding best). Not surprising that Libby's 15-year-old daughter wants to live with the father neither of them has seen since she was born. Anything's better than living in this dilapidated house!

Vicki Mortimer's stunning revolving set is a star of the show; those of us who lived through the whole hippie experience were scouring the house for reminders of an almost forgotten past. Beresford is undoubtedly right that free-loving, let-it-all-hang-out, flower-power-era parents bear a terrible responsibility for what their children become — but come on, it's hardly a surprise that the sins of the father are visited on the son (or daughter). Still, there are some very good jokes and the play is at its best when it exploits them, as they are often very funny. Go see The Last of the Haussmans, by all means, but go for the performances and the fun, not the philosophy. Its run ends Oct. 11.

Patrick Drury and Aidan McArdle in Democracy.
photo by Tristram Kenton/Jo Allan PR

Michael Frayn's Democracy was one of those plays where the sensibility of the British audience was massively at odds with its American counterpart. You will remember that Michael Blakemore's production of this Cold War play (about the struggle for power inside the West German government of Willy Brandt and the East German spy who brought him down) transferred to Broadway with the full expectation that it would be as big a hit in New York as it had been in London's West End. And, to put it bluntly, it bombed on Broadway. My own American friends, regular theatregoers all, couldn't understand why I had recommended it. Universally, they found it "boring," "a bunch of Germans arguing," "incomprehensible, and who cares about these men in suits anyway?" My insistence that it was a great play in a brilliant production was attacked on all sides.

It resurfaced at the Old Vic this summer and, while it is not, perhaps, the great play I thought it then, it is certainly a very good play. It worked here, I realize, because each of the members of Brandt's cabinet of advisors had a British equivalent, a man clearly identifiable by his clothes and his accent. Those differentiations are not possible in America, where accents are regional, not class-based, and where everybody wears the same clothes no matter his class or station in life. No wonder they all seemed to be faceless to an American audience.

Friedrich Durrenmatt wasn't famous for his sense of humor, which makes his plays somewhat heavy going, but The Physicists, in its new version by Jack Thorne and directed by the Donmar Warehouse's new artistic director, Josie Rourke, is at least clear and at best riveting. (The run ended July 21.) We are in a lunatic asylum, presided over by a mad hunchback doctor (Sophie Thompson at her least restrained) and her nubile nurses, all of whom are murdered by the inmates. Well, I told you the jokes were heavy-handed. Each of the inmates is a physicist, and each thinks he's someone else — Einstein, Isaac Newton — thus avoiding the responsibility of being a physicist in the time of the atomic bomb. The play, first produced in 1962, highlighted the strains of its time and the conviction that scientists had made possible the destruction of the world. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this didn't seem like such a far-fetched worry. Rourke's production, on an all-white set by Robert Jones, is a clever reading of a difficult play made easier by fine performances, particularly from John Heffernan, the sanest of the inmates and the one most determined to appear mad.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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