Ever since Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex in 492 BC – in which a son kills his father, then marries his mother – families, in various states of dysfunction, have played a leading role in the history of the theatre. In his latest collaboration with director John Tiffany (their last was a little entertainment called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) Jack Thorne, inspired by his socialist parents, adds yet another example to the genre with the somewhat portentously titled The End of History…
Though he doesn’t give the family a surname, Mom, a school teacher, is called Sal (Lesley Sharp), and Dad is David (David Morrissey). Their children, Polly (Kate O’Flynn), Carl (Sam Swainsbury) and Tom (Laurence Davidson), have all been named after political activists – Polly Hill, Thomas Paine and Carl Marx.
It’s 1997. The substantial setting (by Grace Smart) is the family kitchen in Newbury. Carl is 20. Polly is 19. Tom, the most problematic of the siblings, is 17. The play covers two decades, ending in 2017, and it is clear that their parents’ radical beliefs are weighing heavily on them, especially Polly, who has just spent her first term at Cambridge University and has a razor-sharp will of her own. For the first 20 minutes or so, Sal, a clueless cook battling to prepare dinner for her scattered brood, is particularly irritating as she gleefully needles her daughter on a range of subjects, especially sex.
Even more embarrassing is the grilling she gives Carl’s new girlfriend, Harriet (Zoe Boyle), a walking cliché from a financially comfortable posh middle-class Catholic family whom he has brought along to the dinner. Sal clearly disapproves of her. In the course of the so-called dinner, Harriet, we learn, is pregnant.
Played without an intermission and running an hour and 50 minutes, the play is divided into three acts, each involving a family dinner, all of them culinary disasters. Act Two takes place in 2007. Carl has married Harriet. Polly has become a lawyer and is having an affair with a married man who sends her images of his penis on her phone. Tom, who is gay and may or may not be writing a novel, has suicidal tendencies. Sal is still teaching. David, now in his 60s, is standing for town council. All three acts contain a revelation, and in the middle one, mom and dad confront their children with the news that the family home, and what little savings they’ve accrued, will not be left to them but to various charities.
I won’t tell you the final twist around which Act Three revolves. It’s certainly dramatic, but in the end, not particularly involving. Thorne’s dialogue is often witty and engaging, but not always satisfyingly rounded. You know all there is to know about Sal, but David’s character is underwritten, as is Carl’s. And there are occasional inconsistencies. It is revealed, at one point, that Sal spent two weeks in jail as ringleader of a traffic-halting protest – a fact that, up until that moment, her children never knew about. Given how honest and outspoken Sal always was with her kids and how proud she would have been by the arrest, there is simply no way she would have kept this monumental news from them. Other revelations come tumbling out as well, thus ignoring the playwright’s dictum to show rather than to tell.
Also, over its 20-year span, the play often seems to exist in a political vacuum. This is odd given the radical beliefs of its protagonists. While Tony Blair is briefly dismissed in the opening scene and Gordon Brown is mentioned in passing, in Act Three, Brexit is barely referenced (“no place to bring up children”) and Corbyn not at all. The political landscape of Britain radically changed between 1997 and 2017, but you’d hardly know it from Thorne’s text.
Director Tiffany and movement director Steven Hoggett effectively convey the passing of time by using the theatrical equivalent of a cinematic montage, including the peeling off of dates on a wall calendar, in which all the characters undergo a subtle process of change.
Ultimately, though, The End of History…, with its echoes of several other plays that dealt more profoundly with similar material, promises more than it delivers and asks questions it never answers – such as what exactly is it about and why should we care? The only message conveyed is the one made years ago by the poet Philip Larkin when he famously observed, “They f—k you up, your mum and dad.”
All the performances, though, are excellent, with Sharp outstanding as a woman so annoyingly obsessed with her beliefs yet, at the same time, generous, loving and caring. As her husband, Morrissey, though playing a man with similar passions, is gentler in his approach to life, his most revelatory moments coming at the very end of the play. O’Flynn as free-thinking Polly convincingly matures from gauche adolescent to a caring, level-headed professional woman, and Davidson’s tortured Tom is so full of untapped dramatic potential that one can only lament that the role minimises the scope of what could have been the play’s most interesting character.