‘The End of History…’ review
Time Out says
Kate O’Flynn and Lesley Sharp give stunning performances in Jack Thorne’s family drama
Jack Thorne wrote the most popular play of the twenty-first century (‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’) and is also responsible for much of our current television (I jest, but ‘Kiri’, ‘This Is England’, and ‘The Virtues’ is not a bad haul). So perhaps it’s no wonder that his sporadic Royal Court reunions with ‘Cursed Child’ director John Tiffany are wilfully lower profile.
So it proves with ‘The End of History...’, a heartfelt and likeable tribute to Thorne’s parents’ generation that takes too long to warm up to really make its point.
The play is set in the Berkshire kitchen of Sal (Lesley Sharp) and David (David Morrissey), boho babyboomers and veterans of the free love/Greenham Common generation who we meet in 1997 – and again in 2007 – as the exasperating, unconventional parents to Polly (Kate O’Flynn), Carl (Sam Swainsbury) and Tom (Laurie Davidson).
For these first two acts, the abiding sense is that they’ve fucked it all up. Sharp’s Sal is hilariously potty-mouthed and loquacious; Morrissey’s David is more absent-minded and distant; both are united by their happiness with each other and their complete inability to avoid voicing their every thought and opinion. But despite Sal’s bond with Polly in particular, it is obvious none of their kids is entirely happy, crushed by their parents’ complicated expectations. Polly is brilliant, but she knows her ethically dicey job in corporate law is not what her parents wanted. In 1997 Carl brings Harriet, a posh Catholic girl, back home; his parents torment her, something that has consequences in later years. Tom is a sensitive underachiever who, by 2017 has multiple suicide attempts under his belt and has failed to leave home.
Ah yes: there’s a third act set in 2017! I’m not sure it’s really possible to meaningfully critique the play without spoilering this final section so here goes…
The last scene is set before Sal’s funeral, and is really all about David’s eulogy for her, a speech which almost seems to be the entire actual point of the play. It is both a moving vindication of her life and character, but also a description of a woman her kids barely recognise: a combination of their myopia and Sal and David’s wish to protect them from certain things.
It’s a great final scene, but I’m not convinced it elevates the two that proceed it – for all their caustic wit – above the humdrum. The fact Sal clearly did fuck up her kids’ lives (though probably we all do) feels weirdly unaddressed. Maybe it’s too personal to Thorne: Sal is nothing like my mum and perhaps it would all have a bit more impact if she were.
Tiffany’s shimmering direction frequently distracts you from these shortcomings, with dreamy movement interludes from Steven Hoggett, a lovely electronic score from Imogen Heap and Gace Smart’s set, in which the comfortable kitchen becomes ominously holed and cracked as it reaches the rafters.
Then there’s the cast. It is a ridiculously good cast. Sharp just about has the lead role, and is gloriously TOO MUCH as Sal, albeit with a real soulful undercurrent of vulnerability and doubt. But it’s Kate O’Flynn who walks off with it: Polly’s mix of rueful self-mockery, visceral self-loathing and plain sadness is so devastating that it’s all the more difficult to entirely forgive her mother.