“The Last of the Haussmans” by Stephen Beresford

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Saturday 4th August 2012

Those of us who believe stridently in social justice and think that the general state of affairs can be improved are often told we are delusional and over-optimistic; the hippy movement is often cited as an example of this failure for improvement, and its the point around which Stephen Beresford’s The Last of the Haussmans is structured. But though Beresford has penned a strong play which is shown off in a superbly-acted production, the narrative doesn’t quite do much to inform the arguments presented and I take issue with the cynicism on display.

The dramatic thrust comes from the question over what is to happen to the home of hippy Judy Haussman when she dies; will it go to her children Libby and Nick or find its way into hands elsewhere? Though question of ownership of property is integral to the story, however, it’s a shame the topic is not explored more fully in dialogue; Judy touches on the fetishisation of private ownership, but the emotional arc is found more in the relationships of characters rather than affinity with the house.

What comes through instead is a somewhat defeatist revisionist interpretation of the hippy movement, as Judy’s beliefs are demonstrated to be both useless to state improvement and the cause of the social defects of her children. Some hypocrisies are highlighted, such as the selfishness of these particular liberals even though they preach better conditions for all, though the fact Beresford extrapolates this to all left-wingers is a little strange. And though Love, Love, Love asked similar questions, Bartlett’s play managed to maintain optimism rather than becoming resigned to the ineffectuality of activism (I’m inclined to suggest these two plays represent the opposing viewpoints of the generations, but perhaps that’s over-generalising).

In Howard Davies’ production, gorgeously designed by Vicki Mortimer (which once again draws attention to property), hippy lifestyle is treated with a nostalgic air (with rose-tinted lighting by Mark Henderson and a wonderful soundtrack), suggesting it is a movement consigned to the past and has no place in a neoliberal structure. In fact, I would suggest, now is a time we need to counteract economic ‘freedom’ with the genuine freedoms of the sixties more than ever.

Then again, Beresford must be commended for writing some wonderful dialogue and crafting extraordinary parts for actors. As Judy, Julie Walters injects perhaps more heart than the script suggests, and shows a human determined in her belief that the world can change. Rory Kinnear as the surprisingly conservative gay son Nick (he believes we should only blame ourselves for our imperfections) is mysteriously detached and yet gets involved when it suits him. The stand-out performance, however, comes from Helen McCrory in the role of Libby. Many actors would be tempted to overplay this character’s drama, but McCrory holds it all in until certain moments, when the emotion simply flows. The only other performance I’ve seen on par with this one this year is Victoria Hamilton in the aforementioned Love, Love, Love.

Though the production is strong, however, its impossible to leave The Last of the Haussmans with anything other than a bit of a sour taste in the mouth; there is very little hope of a better future in the play other than the kind Daniel (though he, as a swimmer, clearly thrives on competition and winning). Then again, this is clearly a moot point, for Beresford would seemingly go so far as to suggest that to hold any kind of optimism is futile, meaning we are at cross-purposes – I would go so far as to suggest that the reason change hasn’t been so forthcoming in recent years has been because of the abundance of people who see it as impossible. But then what do I know? I’m only young, so clearly don’t know much about these things.

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