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The End of History
Royal Court Theatre, London
THE title of Jack Thorne’s play references Francis Fukuyama’s infamous 1989 essay announcing the triumph of so-called liberal democracy as socialism was collapsing in eastern Europe.
Thorne focuses on the emotional fallout for lefty liberal parents in the era of neoliberalism and its impact on their offspring. Their story is told through a triptych of decades — 1997, 2007 and 2017 — cleverly marked by actors pulling off calendar pages on the set.
In beautifully choreographed scene changes, we see the characters change, age and reinsert themselves into the next decade.
In 1997 Newbury Sal and David, played with great virtuosity by Lesley Sharp and David Morrissey, fret about the imminent arrival of their eldest son’s “posh” new girlfriend Harriet, a quivering English rose brilliantly played by Zoe Boyle.
The bone of contention seems to be property rather than health or education, as Harriet’s father owns “half of Hampshire” or, at least, its service stations and a few hotels.
Sal’s garrulous onslaught points up her own class insecurities, rather than well thought-out polemic.
Property then is at the nub of it and, in a highly charged middle act, Sal and David explain the contents of their will, thus creating a profound tension between worthy idealism and parental provision.
This opens the fault lines in their offsprings’ characters, clearly formed by their emotional insecurity. Polly, played with grating authenticity by Kate O’Flynn, is a ball-breaking lawyer, the elder son’s marriage is falling apart and the younger son is, well, just falling apart.
The politics are confined to “do-goodism,” with no real understanding of class forces or the way the post-war left was structured in Britain. But it’s not clear if these are the characters’ shortcomings or the writer’s.
Reminiscent of Arthur Miller, the drama and pathos in the third act — and this is the only spoiler — of a burnt lasagne is wonderfully done, unlike the pasta. The emotional volatility of younger son Tom, played with emotional edge by Laurie Davidson, brings a sense of danger.
There’s wonderful ensemble playing throughout and a beautiful set, with lighting through a planted patio perhaps suggesting an enchantment denied in childhood.
A play peppered with “fucks” would once have meant something radical and interesting. But here the repetition feels gratuitous and boring — this is an aesthetic rather than a prudish point, as it upsets the balance and flow of dialogue.
There are other irritations. We know Sal doesn’t like Tony Blair but not who she does like and it’s surely unlikely that Cambridge law graduate Polly wouldn’t know what “nefarious” means.
David’s closing speech, delivered with Shakespearian gravitas and pathos is both moving and revealing. He feels like the heart of this family, although not its yearned-for stabilising influence.
No doubt the Establishment will use this play, validated by the accomplished track record of its author, to suggest that “lefties” really do screw up their kids.
Runs until August 10, box office: royalcourttheatre.com.
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