Writer Jack Thorne has one of the most interesting CVs in theatre, filled with eclectic projects as diverse as Channel 4’s sexual predator drama National Treasure and more lighter child-friendly fare including the internationally acclaimed two-part stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that seems to run and run. Thorne is difficult to pigeonhole but his work most often focuses on the micro effects of class, economics and legacy in a subgenre you could describe as the political family drama. His latest project is exactly that, examining the experience of one family over 20 years, beginning with the early months of the Blair administration in 1997 and ending just two years ago in the Brexit vote aftermath of 2017.
Thorne is fascinated by the complex and evolving relationships among groups of people tied to one another over a long period of time. The experience of government policy, social and financial forces are the backdrop to that, helping to shape character responses, but Thorne places personality and small-scale often domestic tragedies at the forefront of his drama. These themes were exceptionally well realised in three series of This is England co-written with Director Shane Meadows which charted the working class experience across the 1980s as political activism, violence and small-town deprivation forced their way into the lives of a group of young friends trying to find their place and themselves as their circumstances narrowed. Harrowing at times, and unrelenting, Thorne (and Meadows) optimism, their belief in the fundamental goodness of most people created characters to invest in.
The End of History takes the same essential principle and applies it to the generational chasm between those raised in the 1970s and their own children muddling through our more commercial and self-interested modern times. Thorne uses the tight family unit to explore the changing social and political expectations of the last two decades, accompanied by lasting shifts in technological connectedness and reliance – almost as pop culture mileposts. But at the heart of the play is also the idea of parenting as a “legacy” endeavour where characteristics and beliefs about the world are passed down to your children in the hope that they will continue your work. Does this become as much a burden to individuals wanting and needing to live their own lives as the financial implications of inherited wealth that Sal and David so forcefully argue is destroying society? Thorne is asking where and should history end in order to create a new beginning.
Strictly as drama, the first two acts of Thorne’s play are more successful than its conclusion; played straight through at 1 hour and 50 minutes there is an incredible richness in two thirds of The End of History which proves compelling viewing and neatly shifts our perspective on the characters as more layers of the story are revealed. It begins with a reasonably conventional set-up, a family preparing to meet their son Carl’s new girlfriend for the first time and speculating on her supposed wealth and class. The very first interaction proves to be a crucial one as mother Sal and 19-year old daughter Polly, returned home from university, awkwardly navigate the semi-reluctant distance that has grown between them. Instantly the audience is pulled into the drama where unresolved tensions and personality clashes bubble beneath the surface in a strong opening exchange.
Thorne elicits plenty of comedy from this early scenario, the overly familiar and too open Sal and David putting their foot in it with the timid and terrified Harriet unable to cope with the onslaught of questions about her family finances and misunderstandings about their social position. The increasing chattiness of Sal in particular is both uncomfortable and amusing as she crosses the line again and again, almost indulging the awkwardness of the situation for her own mischievous and provocative effect.
What follows is carefully constructed to change our perspective, so the true purpose of the play evolves and adapts in front of us. The family focus of Act One concerned with cooking, the testing of social niceties and intrusion of an outsider into an established group making everyone behave differently morphs into a heavily politicised Act Two which, 10 years on in 2007, looks at the effect of parental choices on their adult children’s self-assurance and contentment. Here the primary driver is an impending announcement around which conversation circulates for most of the Act, with the consequences offering interesting dramatic ramifications.
Thorne is more overtly political here, drawing on the play’s title – a theory on whether society can evolve to a maximum state – to including statistics and more complex economic arguments, but having built character so thoughtfully in Act One, it feels natural that they would speak in this way and are mocked by their children for it. So as David expounds on the horrors of landowning entitlement, rather than a lecture you feel for his silent but slightly horrified children who face the knowledge that their parents have a higher regard for their political views than for the security and contentment of their offspring.
This should come to a head in Act Three but now 20-years since the start of the play, Thorne opts for a far more sentimental conclusion that his writing or these characters really deserve. Avoiding spoilers, what occurs here is in a sense a betrayal of the events and decisions taken in Act Two, but one which the characters barely acknowledge. The action itself is understandable, and perhaps inevitably in a play that deals with familial conflict some parting of the ways must occur to provide a satisfactory conclusion but, in the decade that has now passed in the character’s lives, not enough time is given to explaining to the audience why the revelation of Act Two is no longer applicable.
Instead there is an emotional arc to the story in Act Three that doesn’t sit quite properly with the rest of the play. Still in preview until Wednesday with the Royal Court actively asking for audience feedback some elements may change, but even though the scenario itself is credible, the centrepiece of which is an overlong monologue by David, the tone jars somewhat with the richer and more natural dialogue of the younger characters earlier in the scene. Yet, it is in the creation of character that Thorne excels and, as with his other projects, these are strong and engaging.
The End of History centres on matriarch Sal, played with a finely tuned skill by Lesley Sharp. A long-term activist from Greenham Common to marching against the War in Iraq to local causes, Sal is a collected and shrewd woman, although the first time we see her she’s playing the embarrassing, inquisitive mum to Carl’s new girlfriend. And you do feel she is playing, that Sal enjoys provoking the quiet sensibilities of her children as much as she passionately cares about a variety of social issues.
Sharp’s performance has warmth and genuine care for her children, but rather than an indulgent mother, she’s desperately trying to hide her frustration that she has failed to impart the same degree of social conscience to her two sons and daughter. Yet there are many layers to Sal, a character who is difficult for the others to live up to and prepared to stand her ground, but simultaneously blind to her family’s needs. The amusement of oversharing, Sharp suggests indicates a more deeply rooted failure to recognise the crisis she has created in her children.
Kate O’Flynn as eldest child Polly has the lion’s share of the younger generation’s dramas, resenting the Cambridge education she was forced into and her subsequent career as a corporate lawyer almost deliberately designed to most irritate her parents. More like her mother than she realises, there’s a long-running reference to her singledom and childlessness that Polly turns into a strength, but in the scenes with her brothers O’Flynn suggests the vulnerability of a young woman navigating her emotional needs – including married boyfriends and sexting – a suggestion that Polly failed to find the support she really needed at home. There’s also notable work from Zoe Boyle as the nervously out of place Harriet of Act One who completely transforms into a self-assured and slightly catty member of this dysfunctional group a decade on.
The male characters are less fully explored but David Morrissey is a strong presence as father David, who may only come to light occasionally but has a stronger bond with his children that he cannot properly express, realising only too late that he and they are not what he thought. Sam Swainsbury’s Carl has a more traditional trajectory with a family life of his own, but in Act Three he finally comes into view as he struggles to reconcile the events of the past twenty years and while only in his early 40s fails to see a clear path ahead. Laurie Davidson is a fragile Tom and the events of the play seem harder for him to bear. His Act Two conclusion is rather melodramatic but Davidson gives a wider sense of Tom’s instability and interior angst despite a relatively small role in the overall story.
Grace Smart creates a sizeable middle-class kitchen with portions of the walls exposed or broken through to reveal the abundant garden beyond. In a way it reflects the false reality of this family’s life, but even from the rear stalls some of the brick panels are too obviously fake, lending a cartoony feel to the room that gets in the way of the emotional and intellectual confrontations of the play. A simpler, more impressionistic approach might have worked better in which the problem of the political dominating the personal could be more clearly confronted.
Thorne’s writing is meaningful and engaging, enhanced by the reunion with Cursed Child (and The Glass Menagerie) director John Tiffany who brings a televisual feel to the direction, controlling the movement of characters and adopting a swirling montage during scene changes to play out the passing of the years. In The End of History Thorne shuffles various perspectives within the family, examining their different experiences of the same events from multiple angles, and while these differences drive wedges between them, ultimately and with hope for the future, he explores the ties that keep people together.