Jack Thorne is very much hot property at the moment with recent hit Channel 4 dramas The Virtues, Kiri, and National Treasure each feeling like they have something vitally important to say on contemporary issues, not to mention the epically successful Harry Potter stage play among his numerous stage credits. He’s an incredibly talented writer but unfortunately I spent most of his latest play the end of history… struggling to find the point of it.
That’s not to say it’s a bad play – it’s well performed and directed, there’s some snappy lines and great performances from a strong cast. It is just… fine, and nothing more.
It’s 1997 in Newbury and leftie parents Sal and David wait to meet eldest son Carl’s new girlfriend Harriet for the first time, while their youngest Tom is being kept behind in detention for a rebellious act they’re proud of. Middle child Polly is back from Cambridge University for the occasion but spends most of the time trading barbed intellectual jibes with her father. All three children show signs of promise but, although undoubtedly loved, live in the shadow of socialist ideals from their parents.
Kate O’Flynn delivers a quirky and awkward Polly, constantly butting heads with David Morrisey as her father, and has some of the play’s best lines. Her sibling rivalry with Sam Swainsbury’s Carl is also fun to watch, as is the excruciating introduction of Harriet, played with brilliant embarrassment by Zoe Boyle. The normally excellent Lesley Sharp at times feels like she is forcing her character’s slight eccentricity, to the point we could almost see the punctuation marks on stage as she took on her scripted awkwardness. Thankfully this mellowed as the play wore on, but still felt a little out of step with the naturalism of the rest of the cast.
The play moves forward in the second act to 2007. The grown-ups have called a family meeting that has left the children concerned they’re close to losing a parent. Tom is still living at home having lost yet another job, Polly is a corporate lawyer sending nude pics to her boss, while there are obvious tensions in Carl’s marriage to Harriet, who has lost her embarrassment and is much more self-assured a decade on.
The reality of their coming together is that Sal and David want to announce the will has been altered so that any inheritance goes to various charities because, as Sal puts it, “Inherited wealth is a destabiliser, it damages those without and it doesn’t really help those with”. This proves a tipping point for Tom who does something so shocking that we could feel the family’s pain and panic all at once. Laurie Davidson is consistently devastating throughout as Tom and, along with O’Flynn, are the biggest successes of the production.
The calendar changes again and we skip forward to 2017 for the final act. The kitchen is barer now, a little less life in the house. John Tiffany’s direction is most dynamic in these act changes, a flurry of choreographed movements marking the passage of time as leaves of calendar pages are torn away, furniture is moved around and costumes are changed. But it’s not particularly interesting or new to watch – it’s a good way to show the progressing of time but there’s nothing memorable about how it was executed or anything noteworthy to pick up on.
Which sums up the play as a whole quite well. It’s an okay play with pretty standard direction on a fairly unremarkable set. I’m still unsure what Thorne was trying to say with the play – are we being warned to be careful about the ideals we place on our children? Or is it about the legacy we leave, or a reflection on the disappointment when our offspring don’t live up to expectations no matter how freethinking we claim to be?
I’m still not sure but unfortunately there isn’t enough substance to make me want to keep trying to figure it out. A good cast underserved by a funny script without much to say.