“The End of History” by Jack Thorne: a time-travelling, political Comic-tragedy of Manners @ The Royal Court Theatre, London
Jack Thorne and John Tiffany have collaborated as writer and director on several plays, including the critically acclaimed,“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” for which they both received Tony and Olivier Awards – it was the most awarded West End play in the history of the Oliviers.
The hearth and heart of a home is the kitchen. Alan Ayckbourn’s farce Absurd Person Singular observes the changing friendships of three couples in their kitchens at three successive Christmas Eve parties. In similar vein, this is the ideal communal family space for a realistic homely environment in “The End of History.” It’s simply designed with a refectory dining table and bench, oven, sink, pots & pans, fridge, comfy armchair, piles of books, newspapers and all the usual clutter. Central patio doors lead out into a garden which we see change during the seasons.
The kitchen is the constant setting for three distinctive dates in 1997, 2007 and 2017, a series of family get-togethers, memorable for all the wrong reasons.
In soft shadowy light, a short prelude shows the typical, fast paced bustle at breakfast time. Scene one, 6pm, November, 1997, Sal, (forty-something), and her daughter Polly, a law student, discuss the complex sleeping arrangements for Carl, the older son and his new girlfriend, Harriet whose parents apparently own “half of Hampshire”.
It’s an awkward first encounter; with her hands fluttering and arms waving, Sal chatters away, interrogating the shy, young girl – “What does your mother do?” … “ As in work? She doesn’t,” is the quick, curt reply.
Initially engrossed in The Guardian, husband David joins in a humorous yet heated conversation about Tony Blair, left wing values and inherited wealth with a volley of satirical comments, bickering and swearing, much to the growing embarrassment of their “posh” guest.
But then in a moment of silence, Carl reveals some shocking news, which ricochets like a bombshell with an outburst of accusations, shame and blame. Sal tries to pretend that all is fine, stirs the pot of curry and checks the rice for supper.
Their 17 year old son, Tom then arrives home to find that he has missed the family crisis, but happy to munch a slice of leftover naan bread.
This is the start of an emotional rollercoaster ride as we fast forward to summer 2007 to witness another revelation, an unexpected life-changing decision from Sal and David, as they wait for a Chinese takeaway.
“Ethically, politically, pragmatically, personally” is the refrain for the family’s regular debates, or more likely arguments, revolving around parental socialist ideals. (The kids by the way are named after Carl Marx, Polly Hill and Thomas Payne.)
John Tiffany is a master craftsman of atmospheric mood, pressing the pause button at precise moments to add dramatic tension, punctuating Thorne’s short, sharp conversational dialogue with its free flowing rhythm and pace.
Dimly-lit time change sequences are delicately choreographed with a haunting music soundtrack (The Quiet by Imogen Heap), like mini silent-movies, as the calendar pages are torn off, year by year to reach 2007 and then 2017 respectively. By the final Springtime scene, the garden is filled with colourful plants and the tall trees overhead are in full blossom, a sign of rebirth.
The impressive cast features Kate O’Flynn as Holly who matures from bolshie student to smart, savvy solicitor, while David Morrissey plays David as a thoughtful, quietly urbane intellectual.
The transformation of Harriet from a frail, fragile girl, intimidated by Sal, into a strong-minded woman, is serenely handled by Zoe Boyle.
Carl (Sam Swainsbury) is quietly serious, desperate to break free from parental control, while the youngest, nicknamed Tom Tom, (Laurie Davidson), is a sensitive, lost soul, later finding a kindred spirit in Polly.
Lesley Sharp, (who played the quick-witted, gutsy yet feminine D.C. Rachel Scott in the crime series, “Scott and Bailey”) is pitch perfect as Sal. This is a luminous portrayal, capturing the joint roles of caring mother, loving wife and feisty feminist with a hint of thin-skinned vulnerability. In this modern Kitchen Sink drama, Sal is an angry, middle aged woman, a proud, passionate Greenham activist, with the backbone to her political DNA only revealed in the last scene.
The only quibble is the over-peppering of F words throughout – is this really the vocabulary of middle class parents and teenagers in the late 90s? Also a tendency for actors to stand stock still during conversations, rather than sitting down, grabbing a beer, making a coffee – everyday, natural behaviour at home.
The Royal Court Theatre is the ideal intimate space and from lights down, utter silence as the audience is gripped in the power of shared experience and gasping aloud in unison as the narrative unfolds.
It’s difficult to place Jack Thorne’s ambitious, astute, time- travelling new play into one single theatrical genre, as it shifts in three tight, taut scenes over thirty years, from a black comedy of (appalling) manners to a bleak tragedy. Expect pin-sharp, satirical humour in a hard-hitting, heartfelt family drama, performed with a fine sense of realism, truth and honesty.
Production Photograph credits: Johan Persson
“The End of History” written by Jack Thorne and directed by John Tiffany
Show times: Thursday 27th June until Saturday, 10th August, 2019.
Mon – Sat: 7.30pm. Thu & Sat mats: 2.30pm
Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS
Box Office Tel. 0207 565 5000.
The script is available (Nick Hern Books, £9.99).