It would be harsh to say that Chekhov is turning in his grave. Stephen Beresford’s debut play is a little too tender, a bit too entertaining for that. But so obviously in thrall is Beresford to the Russian master, all the acting, directing and yes, writing talent on view here is fatally diminished by the comparison it invites.
The action takes place in and around the Devon equivalent of a dilapidated dacha. Vicki Mortimer’s design of an art deco house is strewn with the detritus of a life lived as a hippy. It all belongs to sixtysomething Judy who keeps the spirit of the hippy revolution alive by refusing to allow age or the onset of skin cancer to moderate her behaviour. One typically transgressive moment sees her down a lot of booze and then lift up her
skirt to expose herself to her conservative neighbours.
Although we are never quite sure whether to admire or pity her, it is still a closely observed peach of a part, for which Beresford has written some good, character-defining stuff about the evils of materialism and, in particular, resident associations which, Judy says, police society on behalf of the state. “They’re worse than the Stasi.”
It is not hard to see why the role attracted Julie Walters back to the stage for the first time in 12 years. And she gets predictably terrific support from Helen McCrory and Rory Kinnear, as Judy’s grown-up children — the hard-bitten, single-mother Libby, and Nick, a former drug addict and current alcoholic.
Walters would have also been attracted by the prospect of working with Howard Davies who directed her in a superb revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. But the decision to give the play to Davies, the National’s resident expert on epic Russian drama, suggests a misplaced ambition for Beresford’s writing which, though witty enough, succeeds in only nudging the emotions.
And although at its heart Beresford’s play questions whether the hippy movement delivered a better world than the one it escaped from, unlike say Mike Bartlett’s recent Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court, there is little sense that what happens in Judy’s family has a relevance beyond her ramshackle home.
A more modest production might have freed Beresford from the weight of his Russian forebears and increased the chance of his debut work heralding a new dramatic voice. But then with a play so conspicuously featuring unrequited love and an infatuated family friend who, like Lophakin in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, ends up being the beneficiary of the family’s destruction, Beresford was always asking for the comparison. And here he falls awfully short.