‘Most mothers threatened to send their kids’ food to the starving Africans, she actually did it.’ These are the words that Sal’s (Lesley Sharp) children joke that they’ll say at her funeral. Playwriting giant Jack Thorne’s new play the end of history… follows Sal and David (David Morrissey), and their kids Tom (Sam Swainsbury), Polly (Kate O’Flynn) and Carl (Laurie Davidson) through three acts set two decades apart, beginning in 1997, checking in in 2007, and ending in 2017. They’re furiously left-wing, they go to every march and protest, regularly write letters and sign petitions – they’ve even named their kids after socialist heroes. They’ve somewhat admirably taken that famous Gandhi quote about being the change you want to see very seriously.
The play takes place in their family home in Newbury, a shabby palace designed by Grace Smart that looks as though it might fall apart, but never does. It’s mismatched and scuffed, with books and ornaments and art all over the place. If you were asked to imagine the home of a family of robust British hippies in the 90s, it would look like this. Outside, through great glass doors, is a utopia, a huge green garden, bursting with colourful flowers, vegetables and trailing ivy. It seems an idyllic family life: Mum trying and failing to cook, their son bringing a girlfriend home for the first time and Dad making jokes and embarrassing them. But as the children grow older, an angry little undercurrent is soon detectable.
For a play about a very political family, there’s very little actual politics in it. The action lies in the politics of the family, and how they deal with whatever life presents them with. The first act centres on the introduction of Tom’s posh student girlfriend Harriet (Zoe Boyle), whose wealth and innocent ignorance both fascinates and intimidates. While the quick dialogue between the characters, particularly siblings, is unpretentiously intelligent and entrancing, it does feel a bit off-beat, like something is missing or slightly out of key.
Sharp is fantastic as Sal, moralistic but generous, and ultimately wanting to do right by not just her family, but pretty much the entire world. Morrissey plays the part of bumbling Dad prone to occasional outbursts well. Davidson makes for a lost but warm-hearted Carl, Swainsbury is a little flat as the under-achieving Tom, while O’Flynn is magnetic as sharp-as-a-tack work-a-holic Polly, using her powers for evil as a lawyer for oil companies, much to Sal’s dismay – yikes.
Thorne is a master at family drama, and captures the dynamic of modern British families uncannily, but I’m not sure what the end of history… is trying to tell us. It’s slightly all over the place, and I think with a more structured plot it could be more affecting. That said, a touching monologue delivered by Morrissey at the end emphasises what all children must come to learn about their parents at some point; that parents are just people, too. They will get things wrong, and siblings, parents, and children will disappoint each other. What endures in the end of history…, as it does in life, is the core of love and kindness that is passed down.
the end of history… is playing the Royal Court until 10 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Court website.