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The End of History… at the Royal Court, London – review round-up

David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp in The End of History at Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp in The End of History.... at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Jack Thorne and John Tiffany are the playwright-director duo that delivered the humongous success that is the Harry Potter play. Now, with a few more hits tucked under their respective belts – Channel4’s Kiri and The Virtues for Thorne, Jim Cartwright’s Road for Tiffany – they’re back together for The End of History…

Thorne’s partly autobiographical play, which jumps from 1997 to 2007 to 2017 and takes its title from Francis Fukuyama’s famous theory about the triumph of liberal democracy, concerns a far-left-leaning couple and their three children, taking place entirely in their well-worn kitchen in Newbury. Tiffany’s production is at the Royal Court until early August.

David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp feature as David and Sal. BAFTA-nominated Morrissey is recognisable from his many film and TV roles, but he’s never neglected the theatre, recently starring in Nick Hytner’s immersive Julius Caesar. Sharp has had success both on screen and stage too, earning two Olivier nods, and returning now to the Royal Court after appearing in The Woods last year.

Actor David Morrissey: ‘I have to choose roles that challenge me – really frighten me’

But have Tiffany and Thorne cooked up another cracker? Do the critics cover Morrissey and Sharp with praise? Is The End of History… one for the history books, or is it best forgotten?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

The End of History… – Intimate, but underwhelming

Jack Thorne’s stock has risen rapidly in recent years, both in theatre and TV. Theatre hits include 2015’s The Solid Life Of Sugar Water, 2017’s Junkyard and, of course, 2016’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Does this latest work spell more success?

Some critics think it does. It’s a “compassionate, deeply textured study” of a family that “has a lovely inner life that pulses with themes of curdling parental embarrassment, mental crisis, love, loss and legacy,” says Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★), while Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) calls it a “devastating verbal spree” and a “piercing look at the liabilities (and benefits) of being the offspring of political idealists”.

Most, though, find it lacking. It’s “a good-hearted but stutteringly plotted look at the effect that politically ideological, lefty parents may have on their children” according to Susannah Clapp (Observer), and an “intimate drama” that’s “clearly heart-felt, yet curiously underwhelming” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★).

“There’s not much plot, only the rise and fall of their lives over the decades, and it’s never exactly clear what Thorne is aiming at,” I comment (The Stage, ★★★), while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) observes that it still feels like “a work in progress” and Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★) reckons that “the overall import of the evening never comes into focus”.

“While it’s animated by serious ideas about progressive values and packed with quotable lines, it has a frustrating lack of focus,” concludes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★).

The End of History…  – Typical Tiffany

John Tiffany was the logical choice to direct the Harry Potter play: his shows, from 2011’s Once to 2013’s revival of The Glass Menagerie, to 2017’s revival of Road, are often touched by directorial magic. Does he achieve the same effect here?

John Tiffany: ‘New plays are where my heart is’

It definitely does – not one critic has a bad word to say about Tiffany’s direction. It’s “beautifully” done according to Taylor, has “grace and power” according to Crompton, and “brings fluidity to the drama” according to Clapp.

Tiffany “stages the play excellently, using Steven Hoggett’s carefully choreographed movement to capture the ongoing domestic life between scenes” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★). Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) calls his direction “shimmering”, with “dreamy movement interludes” and “a lovely electronic score from Imogen Heap”, adding that “Grace Smart’s set, in which the comfortable kitchen becomes ominously holed and cracked as it reaches the rafters.”

“Tiffany directs with a sure hand, splicing the scenes with passages of dance-like movement, the characters bathed in golden light as the years tumble from the calendar on the wall,” I describe. “It’s a typical example of Tiffany magic, but he’s also unafraid of stillness on stage. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end when Morrissey sits stock still on a chair, reading an intensely emotional speech, and you could hear a pin drop.”

The End of History… – A family of individuals

Sam Swainsbury and Zoe Boyle in End Of History... Photo: Tristram Kenton
Sam Swainsbury and Zoe Boyle in End Of History…. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Alongside David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are Sam Swainsbury, Kate O’Flynn and Laurie Davidson as children Carl, Polly and Tom, with Zoe Boyle as Carl’s upper-class girlfriend-then-wife-then-ex. What to the critics think of their performances?

Sharp is particularly good. She “quivers with political fervour and emotional anxiety” describes Clapp, while Billington praises how she “captures Sal’s mix of political earnestness and private generosity” and Lukowski calls her “gloriously too much as Sal, albeit with a real soulful undercurrent of vulnerability and doubt”.

Morrissey is also given the thumbs-up. He’s “beetle-browed and brusque, always ready with a quote or a comeback”, I comment, while Billington describes how Morrissey “suggests shrewdly that his character, though he loves his children, rates them according to the keenness of their mind”.

There’s praise for O’Flynn, too, particularly from Lukowski. “It’s Kate O’Flynn who walks off with it,” he writes. “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.”

But, despite these strong individual performances, several critics point out that the cast don’t quite convince as a whole. “The relationships between the younger characters don’t mesh convincingly,” writes Hitchings, while Clapp comments that they “don’t cohere as a family act”.

The End of History… – Is it any good?

Laurie Davidson and Kate O’Flynn in End Of History…. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Praise for Thorne’s play is lukewarm at best. He’s a sensitive, soulful writer, but this particular piece doesn’t quite prove the powerhouse that everyone was expecting. Its portrait of a dysfunctional family is thoughtful and warm, but frustratingly unfocussed at the same time.

Tiffany’s direction is typically classy, though – assisted by Steven Hoggett’s fluid inter-scene movement sequences – and the performances, particularly of Sharp, Morrissey and O’Flynn are excellent, even if they don’t quite come together completely.

The End of History… isn’t a huge hit like the Harry Potter play. Three-star reviews, with one or two four-star ratings, suggest that it’s much more middle-of-the-road than that.

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