Going with my wife to see Mike Bartlett's new play about a baby boomer couple who met at Oxford in the late 1960s when they were 19 was a strange experience. Imagine the Queen watching The King's Speech, and you'll get an idea of how deja vu it felt for both of us.
It could have been a delightful autobiographical trip down memory lane; like the main characters Kenneth and Sandra, we met at Oxford in the late 1960s and we still have an early LP by Cream tucked away under the window seat in the front room. Unfortunately, despite a wonderful performance by Victoria Hamilton as Kenneth's wife Sandra, there were just too many things wrong with this play to make it really enjoyable. I have no wish to savage Mike Bartlett, as I know from experience how hard it is to write a good play, but I think that this one is worth dissecting in detail, at the risk of including a few plot spoilers (look away now if you don't want to know what happens).
For a start, it's much too long, coming out at just over three hours, including two long intervals when the set is changed completely. There's nothing wrong with this in principle -- the Royal Court did it very successfully for the revival of Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup With Barley, another play which skipped through the time zones and across the generations. But there's a lot of wordy expositional foreplay in all three scenes which should have been cut. Director James Grieve of Paines Plough has already taken this play on a regional tour with a different cast, and I'm surprised he didn't manage to make the play tighter.
It opens on 25 June 1967 in a shabby London flat where layabout Oxford undergraduate Kenneth, 19, is staying with his uptight 23-year-old brother Henry, a character who seems to have wandered in from an early Pinter play. When the elder brother invites his new girlfriend Sandra round, Kenneth and Sandra bond over a joint and a bit of rock music, and Henry is elbowed aside, never to reappear. Bartlett's dialogue always flows smoothly, but there's an irritating mixture of exact detail, such as the date, and vague imprecision. There are lots of things that aren't quite plausible. It's hard to believe that Sandra has been seeing boring old Henry for two months but hasn't told him she's at Oxford; equally hard to believe that when Sandra and Kenneth are introduced, they don't immediately ask each other which college they're at and what subjects they're reading. Remember, this is late June; either Sandra has been working for the past two months in a shop on Baker Street, or she's spent her summer term at Oxford, but she can't possibly have been doing both. Later in the play we never learn what careers the obviously successful Kenneth and Sandra are pursuing either. The detail isn't important in itself, but it shows a failure by the writer to fully think through his characters. I'm not complaining pedantically that Bartlett's historical detail is incorrect, but about his failure to imagine in real depth how the baby boomer generation thought and felt. Sandra is described by Henry before she appears as nicely dressed but 'into all that anti-nuclear wotnot, and women. Talks a lot about women. She goes to groups. Protests'. But when she comes on stage Sandra doesn't have a political word to say for herself. Instead of being a proto-feminist or a protester against the atom bomb, she's a dollybird who's into smoking joints and listening to rock and roll. There were crucial tribal divisions in the late 1960s; the world of Mary Quant fashion boutiques, of puritanical revolutionary politics and of counter-cultural pot-smoking hippiedom may have intersected at some points, but Bartlett lumps them all together. His picture of the 1960s seems to have been pieced together from a few newspaper clippings, rather than a real attempt to understand how it was. Yes, it was a new and exciting period, but people who grew up in the 1960s didn't go around making speeches about it, as Sandra does. 'Something's changing...you're really living, aren't you?' she exclaims. 'The world's going to be a different place in ten years,' she exclaims. The crucial point is that cultural change is generally taken for granted and accepted as normal by the generation that experiences it -- just as the world of social networking and smartphones is taken for granted by teenagers today; it's the older generation which actually sees the changes happening.
The second act is set in 1990 when Kenneth and Sandra are in their early 40s with two teenage children; Sandra's failure to turn up on time for daughter Rosie's violin concert provokes a crisis in which the couple confess their infidelities and Sandra announces that they're going to divorce. Some of the dialogue has an undemanding TV sitcom flavour; Kenneth and Sandra feel they are trapped because they live in Reading rather than London. Bartlett's feel for personal relationships and how they fall apart is very acute, and the moments of family crisis produce the best passages of writing. What is missing in a work of this ambitious scope is the real social and political context. All we learn is that Sandra is a very selfish person. 'We're entitled to do our own thing follow our own path, no one can tell us what's right, not church not the government, not even our children, it's no one's business but our own.' Is this the 'permissive society' of the 1960s breaking through, or the 'me generation' of the 1980s? Liberalism or Thatcherism? None of these ideas are fully explored.
In Act Three there's a family reunion in 2011 at the spacious home of Kenneth, newly retired on £60,000 a year (again that meaningless precision) at which Rosie, now 37, demands that her parents should buy her a house. As a struggling musician, she is approaching middle age with neither a man, a child or a well-paid job, and is looking forward to more of the same. But her heartless selfish parents tell her to get lost and instead hook up again with each other, planning to spend Rosie's inheritance on travelling the world. This refusal to help a daughter of whom they are clearly fond doesn't ring true at all. Though Bartlett has a much better understanding of the present rather than the past, he doesn't really explore the characters or their motivations properly. The 35-year-old son who is still living with his golf-playing father rent-free suggests that the father isn't entirely selfish, though possibly blind to what's wrong with his son. Jamie remains one of the irritatingly vague elements in the play.
The chief pleasure to be gained from this evening at the Royal Court is in Victoria Hamilton's corker of a performance in the role of Sandra. From the moment she walks on stage in high heels and a gaudy period dress as a dollybird, she is pitch-perfect; in the second act she's a high-achieving career woman and in the final act a trim, attractive sexagenarian. Playing a woman who ages by more than 40 years over the course of a play is a real challenge, but Hamilton (one of my all-time favourite actresses) achieves it effortlessly. It seems only a few years ago I saw her enchanting performance as Rosalind in a Sheffield Crucible production of As You Like It. She's now in mid-career and on the basis of this performance as the self-centred Sandra I would love to see her in a few years time tackling the role of Martha in Who's Afraid Of Viriginia Woolf. Ben Miles as Kenneth struggles a bit to convey the puppyishness of 19-year-old Kenneth but is more within his range in the second and third acts. Claire Foy is very good in the role of Rosie, moving from 16 to 37, while Sam Troughton as the stolid Henry and George Rainsford as Jamie have to play characters that are only sketched in one dimension.
So how much did I recognise about my baby boomer generation in Bartlett's play? He's right about our generation being fortunate in material terms -- but this translates into an easy generalisation about selfishness which I find extremely trite. There's nothing meaningful that this play has to say about anything much, if you compare it with works of a similar ambition and scope. Think of Pinter's exploration of adultery in Betrayal, or Stoppard's subtle exploration of similar themes in The Real Thing. For a political play about generations, think of Wesker or of Stoppard's Rock and Roll, which explores the 1960s split between cultural and political radicalism, or David Hare's Amy's View. There is a great play still waiting to be written about the legacy of the 1960s, in particular the changing role of women over the past half century, but I'm afriad this isn't it.