The National is showing an impressive show of confidence in a debutant writer by offering the world premiere of his first play in the Lyttelton. Most new plays, and especially those by new writers, emerge in the Cottesloe first, even if like the current Collaborators or London Road, they then transfer to elsewhere in the building. Even plays by the likes of David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and Mike Leigh have gone through this less exposed route.
Taron Egerton (Daniel) Julie Walters (Judy) in The Last of the Haussmans at the National, Lyttelton, London (previous picture shows Rory Kinnear as Nick) Photo: Catherine Ashmore
But the National have also provided ample insurance for actor-turned-playwright Stephen Beresford’s debut by kitting it out with a superlative creative team, led by director Howard Davies, and a stellar cast that includes Julie Walters (last at the National with Davies for All My Sons), Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory, Matthew Marsh and two extremely promising younger actors.
Between them, they give it the sort of sheen and class that a producer like Michael Codron would once have provided for a West End premiere of it. But if the creative axis has swung decisively away from new plays opening ‘cold’ there, this production is West End ready and could transfer there tomorrow (and probably will).
The play itself is a taut, touching and genuinely amusing portrait of generations of family damage, in which Julie Walters is a bohemian matriarch called Judy, recently laid low by skin cancer, who is visited by her two adult children - Kinnear’s Nick, a gay, former smack-head, and McCrory’s Libby, single mother of a sullen 16 year old (Isabella Laughland’s Summer). The cast of characters is completed by two outsiders, Matthew Marsh’s Peter - a neighbouring doctor friend of Judy’s who embarks on a brief affair with Libby - and Taron Egerton’s Daniel, a young aspiring competitive swimmer who lives next door as a carer to his bedbound mother.
Their reflective interactions are gloriously textured in the expert playing, from which director Davies draws the maximum amount of weight and feeling possible, but by the subtlest means. Though there’s a lot of shouting between these brittle, damaged family members, the play’s spilling emotions are held in check by the subtlety of the playing so that it always feels utterly authentic. Walters inhabits the larger-than-life Judy with an extravagant intensity that makes her continued hold over her children utterly plausible - as her wounded, defensive offspring, Kinnear and McCrory offer minutely observed character studies that are rich in detail and drama.
Vicki Mortimer’s brilliantly ramshackle set captures the faded glory of the seaside house where this drama, by turns hilarious and haunting, is played out.