A mad leap into the dark on the South Bank. And I’m all for mad leaps into the dark. A big-name cast has been assembled for a new play by an untested writer at the 900-seater Lyttelton theatre. Cripes. Stephen Beresford is a Rada graduate who knows his way around the dramatic repertoire. And he seems to have approached his first commission from the National in a spirit of dazzling insouciance. ‘Hey, I’ll just nick everything from Chekhov: the plot, the setting, the characters, the relationships and the atmosphere. And no one’ll notice!’ Well, there are smarter ways to go poaching. If you steal from a lesser dramatist, you can improve what you’ve stolen. But if you mug a genius, his genius will embarrass you.
The location is a ramshackle seaside house in Devon where Judy Haussman, a drugged-up old hippie, lives with her spiky daughter, Libby, and her even spikier grand-daughter, Summer. A set of doomed Chekhovian romances begins. Judy’s son, Nick, returns from rehab and falls in love with Judy’s pool-boy. The pool-boy is obsessed with Libby who is busy dallying with the local doctor who amuses himself by flirting with the sex-starved Judy.
So, nothing a quick orgy wouldn’t sort out. But there’s another factor at work. The big old house. Nick and Libby are scheming to nab the property from Judy but neither character seems to understand the concept of legal title. The writer certainly doesn’t. If Judy owns it, Judy disposes of it. End of story. But in the second act we learn that the house has been sold to a mortgage company without Judy’s knowledge. No idea how that could happen.
The script works hard to create the mood of rotting, degenerative despair that Chekhov specialises in. Designer Vicki Mortimer has amassed a great crud-heap of mouldering bric-a-brac which looks spectacularly horrid for a couple of minutes. But after two hours, the eye longs for something stylish, or just restful, to settle on.
Julie Walters is enjoyably silly as the messed-up matriarch whose brain last welcomed an original thought in 1968. She’s not just vain and cloyingly maternal, she’s also obsessed with the trappings of the drop-out generation. She garbles non-stop about LSD, bongos, mantras and Bob Dylan. So she’s less a Chekhov rip-off than a smash-and-grab from AbFab. This adds to the atmosphere of stale pastiche.
One of the wonders of Chekhov is that no one understands how he achieved his effects. His imitators always get short-changed. They aim for vibrant boredom and they get boredom. They try to portray charming losers and they end up portraying losers. They strive for smoulderingly aimless chatter and they get aimless chatter. And Beresford hasn’t cracked Chekhov’s ability to make the characters leave traces of themselves behind after they’ve walked off stage. Beresford’s people are like holograms. Even when visible they’re only partially there.
The cast seem off-pitch. Helen McCrory, as elegant, zestful and sexually charismatic as any actress in the business, can’t do much with the coarse, truculent Libby. What a wreck this woman is. Her daughter’s a basket case, her mother’s a hospital case and her destiny is a suitcase. But aside from these surface details, she’s a huge maze of nothing. Rory Kinnear, playing the former junkie Nick, looks like a mix-up in the post. Kinnear has the subtle complexities of a screen actor rather than the primary colours of the stage. His strengths are obliqueness, detachment and a guarded feline intelligence. Quite why he agreed to play this boorish, washed-up self-pitying whinge-bag I can’t imagine.
And Matthew Marsh, as the doctor, offers his habitual blend of charm and menace but the character is almost unintelligible. He starts as a philandering good-time guy and ends up as a chastened sour-boots who has (I think, but I wasn’t entirely certain) cheated the family of its inheritance.
The play’s central scene is a drunken second-act dinner party where each character speaks the truth and everyone gets it in the neck. Judy’s make-love-not-war mission is lambasted for its self-indulgent impotence. And that’s fair enough but the hippies are a pretty feeble target these days. Even at their zenith they were supremely idiotic. The governor of California met a flower-power spokesman during the summer of love and noted that ‘he dressed like Tarzan, walked like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah’.
That was Ronald Reagan, of course, and nothing in this play has the Great Communicator’s bluntness or wit. A shame, really. But top marks to the National for trying. Hopefully its next mad leap into the dark won’t result in a cry of Man overboard!