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The Last of the Haussmans

by on 15 March 2023

Swinging Sixties-Something

The Last of the Haussmans

by Stephen Beresford

Putney Theatre Company at Putney Arts Theatre until 18th March

Review by Steve Mackrell

The Last of the Haussmans was first performed at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton, in the summer of 2012, when it opened to rather mixed reviews.  At the time, it was probably overshadowed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was playing simultaneously in the NT’s Cottesloe and which seemed to be grabbing most of the critical attention. 

The Last of the Haussmans is written by Stephen Beresford, who originally trained as an actor but subsequently turned to writing.  This is his first play, and the National’s original version was directed by Nicholas Hytner, with a cast including Helen McCrory, Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear.  Since then, the play seems to have largely disappeared from view, and it seems a brave programming decision by the Putney Theatre Company, ten years later, to resurrect the play and give audiences another chance to catch it.  Indeed, a welcome decision, as the play provided a great evening’s entertainment in SW15.

The play is set on the south coast of Devon, familiar territory to writer Stephen Beresford, given his upbringing in Dartmouth.  The play follows three generations of the Haussman family, headed up by the eccentric Judy, a 1960’s hippie dropout still living in the decaying family home.  And indeed, the first star of the show is the set itself, a decrepit Devon property, crumbling and sadly gone to seed.  The action takes place in the patio garden in front of a dilapidated conservatory – now all shabby from years of neglect.  A great deal of effort must have gone into constructing this set, and credit must go to the set design and build team, for creating such a vision of decay.

The play itself, is a modern comedy drama of family life, which observes the interaction between three generations.  Themes include the tense territory of family reunions, conflicts around inheritance and equity release, and the growing differences in attitude between the various generations.  In a sense, it’s Chekhov’s angst meets Ayckbourn’s middle class values.   

The matriarch of the Haussman family, the grande dame, is the wonderful character of Judy, diagnosed with cancer and living alone in the family home.  She is visited by her two middle-aged children – daughter Libby and son Nick – and her granddaughter, Summer.  Added into the mix is a doctor friend of the family and a local youth, Daniel, who pops round occasionally to use the swimming pool.   

Certainly, Haussmans is not a great play, but is certainly good fun, with many fine performances from a strong and talented cast, who bring a sense of believability to the production. 

Penny Weatherall’s eccentric Judy was an absolute joy and a delight every moment she was on stage.  She totally embraced the character of the ageing hippie as we followed tales of her colourful life from squats in Belsize Park to spiritual experiences in Poona.  A powerful performance full of wry observations such as “my kids hate me when I’m sexual – it frightens them.”

Cait Hart Dyke’s Libby captured the frustration of being trapped between an eccentric mother and an unhappy daughter, while also dealing with the failure of her own marriage.   A very believable and sensitive performance and I particularly enjoyed her scenes of conflict with the other key characters, and especially her tense argument with her brother Nick. 

Chris Cully’s portrayal as Nick, the gay son with a life wasted on drugs, was edgy and intense.  With eyes constantly dancing, fingers always fidgety, this was a great study of a tortured unhappy soul.  Particularly poignant was his rant “I apologise for nothing” and his recall of a childhood memory, where he fantasised about wanting to be the local TV weatherman.  Another amusing moment was his nicely observed reaction to seeing their nineteen year old neighbour, Daniel, popping round dressed only in his speedos ready for a swim. 

In fact, good performances all round including David Kelly’s doctor, Adam Batty as the young taciturn neighbour Daniel, and Isabella Walsh-Whitfield as the sullen grand-daughter,   Summer.  Two further scenes which stood out included the powerful argument between the three generations of women, and a wonderfully nostalgic scene where three of the characters reminisce while “watching” projections of old photos on a Kodak carousel projector. 

The direction, by Frances Bodiam, was brisk and well-paced and the placement and movement of the characters was excellent and varied.   The choice of music was apt and praise also goes for the costumes – frequent quick changes for the sensibly dressed Cait Hart Dyke and, as for Penny Weatherall, apart from her flowing Indian finery, her Snoopy top was great – but that’s before we glimpsed her red Che Guavara knickers.

Despite a rather implausible plot, the interaction between the three generations made for an entertaining evening, allowing us to witness a fascinating collision between the revolutionary visionaries of the Sixties and the pragmatists of today.  The Last of the Haussmans is great fun and certainly worth a visit.

Steve Mackrell, March 2023

Photography courtesy of PTC

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