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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by John Tiffany like all Jack Thorne’s recent works, The End of History… is designed by Grace Smart featuring a distressed Newbury kitchen-diner elegantly torn at the back to reveal a brick wall and patio, lit by Jack Knowles with Tom Gibbons’ sound design and movement by Steven Hoggettt.


There’s three lacunae in Jack Thorne’s The End of History… It contradicts Francis Fukuyama’s famous discredited pronouncement that liberal democracy triumphed.


Basing some of this play on his own left-wing family upbringing, Thorne suggests the lacunae extend from the play’s three acts’ dates: winter 1997, summer 2007, and emblematically May 1st 2017. From Blair’s victory to just before the 2017 election and Brexit blues its political family sweep echoes Arnold Wesker’s similarly-plotted Chicken Soup with Barley. Though its tone’s closer to Nina Raine’s magnificent 2010 Tribes. With three acts straight through at 110 minutes there’s an unbroken long rush of pink fade.


As socialist matriarch Sal puts it: ‘No talent at all when it comes to cooking… but when it comes to pissing off my children – immense talent – Olympian talent.’ Like Tribes Thorne’s quotable dialogue shows a family privileging cleverness and references (‘Dostoievski’, ’all Rousseau’, ‘Monty Python’), where the cleverest of three (Polly the daughter) is palpably the favourite, despite the best of egalitarian intentions.


Thorne whose Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last brought him and director John Tiffany together, also teamed with him for Hope at the Court in 2014. That’s nearer to this play: Labour counsellors opposing austerity.


Grace Smart’s design features a distressed Newbury kitchen-diner in eggshell green, elegantly stuffed with world-political memories and a dining table that literally moves with the times. The room’s elegantly torn at the back revealing a brick wall and patio; and in the last act sun-filled windows flung open that warm as they dazzle after a long wintering-out. In between the acts there’s fast-forwards where characters dance through ripping calendar dates off, hinting at in-between stories. Movement’s by Tiffany and Thorne’s regular Steven Hoggett. Seasons brighten and fall in Jack Knowles’ lighting, with Tom Gibbons’ sound design.


It’s 1997: Between switching off Blair for being too equivocal over everything from single-mother-benefits to Clause 4, Lesley Sharp’s Sal explains to Polly (named after anthropologist Polly Hill) why she’s giving Polly’s bedroom up to her brother’s boyfriend, because it’s the nicest. ‘…because I made it the nicest room’ Polly seethes. It’s a portent of Act Two.


Sharp’s wonderful at Sal’s over-compensatory jollity. There’s TMIing: refusing anal sex with 1970s student economists, or two kinds of VD from her communist spell. Or later trying to fawn on privilege, failing to hide contempt. Thorne’s writing here is painfully acute: how middle-class liberals such as Sal and David, themselves from poorer backgrounds somehow desperately appease those they despise, because it’s civilised.


It’s the cringe factor of Act One, the first of three attempts at dinner. So after Sal explains her lack of talents to Harriet (Zoe Boyle), she turns on screws. Harriet’s the posh Catholic girlfriend under-achieving eldest son Carl (named after Marx) has brought back. Hotelier daughter Harriet’s casual indifference is scrutinized. ‘What does your mum do?’ Sal askes Harriet. ‘Charity… Something to do with horses’ is finally squeezed out of the inscrutably nonplussed Boyle. Sharp’s ‘oh’ is as glancingly dismissive as a duchess.


You also wonder why Harriet’s hitched herself to Sam Swainsbury’s Carl. As with his son role in Mum Swainsbury suggests the same hangdog under-achiever, just a 2.2 brighter. Polly in Kate O’Flynn’s hands, reading Law at Cambridge sounds a consonance away from him. Already depressed at finding she’s no longer the cleverest in class, she’s lowering herself to mere success. Laurie Davidson’s Tom (after Tom Paine) is altogether different but hardly appears to begin with.


The left ports its own braggadocio. Emerging from a newspaper David Morrissey’s David quizzes all in family fashion to guess reoffending rates. Carl cringingly chooses a percent less than Polly’s answer, later adding: ‘Well, anyway Pol won, she was closest.’ It tells you everything about him. Morrissey’s rumpled authority only partially masks a fear, shared with Sal that their children don’t enter into their socialist inheritance. Polly no longer aspires to be Helena Kennedy.


If 2007 shows how disparities between aspiration and between the siblings deepens, a parental decision begs questions of ethical action: caring for children you’ve brought into the world. Is it a kind of passive revenge? It’s essential cosy socialist nostrums in Act One get inverted: Thorne finds a rich, wincing vein in the resulting explosion. And it’s Harriet who delivers the killer line: ‘Blackmailing your children to be better than they are?’


Inevitable rifts open and whilst Polly finds brief moments with Carl her only solace in 1997, it’s Davidson’s emergence as a young gay man out of Goldsmith’s and failed art installations that makes for the most painfully real sibling chemistry. His catching Polly sexting her boss and advising her, is one of Thorne’s most touching, funny moments. Davidson’s jerky life-enhancement, fragile, frantically empathic, makes the latter two acts flair up.


Whilst Sharp’s playful and riveting – going to the toilet is ‘an apolitical act’ – she’s well-matched by Morrissey whose great moment is the play’s climax. O’Flynn and Swainsbury seem barely related though each give fine performances – O’Flynn having more to do. Her interaction with Davidson highlights a comparative lack of intimacy elsewhere. We don’t quite care enough: always in a kitchen, always in the family’s public space. Boyle’s hardening confidence is watchable; there’s just too little of it. Her reaction to Swainsbury is a predicted arc.


Thorne’s elided political reference: fleeting ones to the Iraq war, Brown, Brexit. It’s as if a penumbra of socialism’s enough when depicting a family; specifics date fast. Perhaps, but Thorne’s set his play in specific time periods, and a deeper marbling of the age – nothing dense, but something to show its shift – would have been welcome. So in 2017 the Corbyn effect passes in silence, though here we’re in the early stages of May’s election.


It’s here though that Thorne reveals not an end-of-act revelation as twice previously but enormous affective power, in a rehearsal of a eulogy. Nailing a life with a hymn to activism, it’s heart-stopping when the Quaker tradition of simply retelling is breached. The End of History… finally shows a beginning of one, a work despite its political lacunae you want to return to.