A Family Sketch

Jack Thorne: the end of history…, Royal Court Theatre, London (Director: John Tiffany)

By Sascha Krieger

When author Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany last teamed up, they created the imaginative whirlwind that is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that is still wowing sold-out auditoriums three years later. Their latest collaboration is a lot more personal, intimate, and has a very different scope. Partly autobiographical, the play charts a family history over 20 years. The parents are leftist idealists who have named their children after some of their heroes – Karl Marx, Thomas Paine and anthropologist Polly Hill – their offspring struggling to find their ways through parental expectations in a way less ideological and idealist age. High-flying daughter Polly becomes a corporate lawyer, older brother Carl a failing family man while rebellious Tom turns out to be a struggling would-be artist. All lost, all successes and failures at the same time. We meet the family three times: in 1997, just after Tony Blair’s election, and then again ten and twenty years later, the last time just after mother Sal’s death.

Image: Sascha Krieger

All three times, conflicts soon emerge, sparked by news – like Carl’s pregnant girlfriend in act one or a „big announcement“ in act two – or just the workings of the family dynamic, Sal’s constant jabbering, Polly’s dry comebacks, father David’s rough directness and so on. This is undoubtedly quite heart-warming and often very entertaining. Lesley Sharp is an acidic and vibrant Sal, a constant talker, unashamedly embarassing to her kids, as if becoming silent is the ultimate enemy. David Morrissey’s David is a towering force, quieter, yet prone to change the situation with one relentless line. Both embody that strange breed of thoughly bourgeois leftists, non-conformist middle class citizens, voting rebels, full of ideals and guarding a decidedly „normal“ lifestyle. Pragmatic, not hypocritical, true to themselves, yet part of society. They are no stereotypes but fully fleshed out characters, individuals rather than chiffres. The same cannot be said about the children who are more stereotypical, middle-class drifters, either eschewing their parents‘ ideals, settling for acceptable mediocrity or being permanently lost.

Sparks fly, humour abounds through the often witty, frequently sharp and occasionally cutting dialogue. The play’s strength lies in taking the parents‘ ideals seriously, not propagating them but in questioning not dismissing them either. The hypocrisy card is never dealt, their sincerity – even in its flawed way, recognised by all – never doubted. The next generation are less lucky. Their ideals are never clear, their characterisation remains sketchy, all three feel somewhat pale. True Kate O’Flynn’s Polly can be cuttingly witty and shows comedic talent as when she exchanges telling selfies with her boss/lover, revealing a much less mature and more insecure reality underneath the self-assured surface. But script and direction don’t dare go there, they prefer the pleasant vagueness of the facade, the good-humoured family strife that is all rooted in mutual love. When choices have to be made, both consistently go for the most harmless, least painful. Designer Grace Smart’s impressive homely interior may have crumbling walls – but the blooming garden outside suggests life that can overcome any little squabble.

The effect is that everything feels a little inconsequential: the conflicts all appear solvable – because after all, what are they compared to family love? – the children’s struggles hardly ever exceed the adolescent, the interweaving of family story and larger world suggested by the title, quoting Francis Fukuyama’s no infamous verdict on the supposed victory of liberal democracy after the Cold War, never really takes place. the political is hardly more than a soundbite, not charging the story but somewhat paralysing it. Thus, things don’t really advance, they remain the same, even the mother’s death does not provide much of an impact. Things remain on the backburner, connected through nicely choreographed scene breaks in which the characters move through the years in an undoubtedly intended lack of change. Which also means that it never becomes clear where this is heading: family portrait? Social analysis? A miniature picture of British/western society? None of this really materialises. What does is a mildly entertaining sketch about people seeking their ways in life, hindering each other through trying to help. There could be an excellent play in this – as it is, it feels unfinished. Which kind of fits this lovable family unit.

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