With wide-eyed rage and bayonet wit Mike Bartlett’s greatest play roughs up the Baby Boomers in three glorious acts. Where 13 puffed and blustered, Love, Love, Love is a bildungsroman for a lost generation: My Family if the Harpers were force-fed broken glass and perspective. Sprawling in scope but intimate and controlled in scale, 40-odd years pass in 3 not-so-odd rooms as a couple fall idealistically in love, see their dreams dashed, then rise from the ashes while their children scratch around in the dirt.
Bartlett’s play begins in the summer of 1967, where Oxford student Kenneth (Ben Miles) meets BoBo hippy Sandra (Victoria Hamilton) and they plan their life of liberated self-expression. We visit them twice more, in 1990 and 2011, we meet the family they raise, and see the fall-out of their so-called idealism. In one sense we see radical self-definition calcify into Thatcherite egoism, buy the shiny Ferrari of Blairite mid-life crisis and then entrench its wealth in a golfers swing back to the right.
Bartlett is deliberately and explicitly partisan in his attack on the selfishness of a generation of would-be world changers who ‘climbed the ladder and broke it as [they] went’, but he has embedded it within a shrewdly observed and often hilarious domestic drama. The generation gap yawns between once-groovy parents and their disenchanted daughter Rose (Clare Foy), and the second act is a cringey masterpiece of familial disintegration written and performed to perfection. Occasionally the text bristles with a hint of discomfort as it brushes up against the subtext, but it’s a minor complaint.
The cast is uniformly brilliant. Hamilton’s descent from epitome of swinging London to alcoholic harridan is utterly believable, and both she and the excellent Miles find pathos and good-will in their unintentional villainy. Both actors are faced with the challenge of convincingly ageing 45 years over the show’s duration, and manage it with near-total success. Foy is pitch-perfect as a teary teenager, and manages some of Bartlett’s less subtle writing in the third Act with an understated truthfulness. George Rainsford is effortlessly believable as youngest child Jamie, and Sam Troughton is so engaging as Kenneth’s buttoned-up brother Henry that his failure to re-appear after the first act was genuinely disappointing.
The cast is directed with wit and control by James Grieve, who finds a persistent language of domestic discord in the topping-up of wine glasses, the concealing and revealing of cigarettes and the unspoken word. Under his hand Bartlett’s play feels leaner than its length and scope would suggest: each interval feels like a decompression.
Lucy Osborne’s three sets are both intricate and moody, reflecting Kenneth and Sandra’s growing affluence with a keen eye for both detail and effect, and James Farncombe is fast becoming my favourite lighting designer working in London. His natural light looks more natural and his tonal manipulations are more measured than anyone else I can think of. The entire production has been polished keenly, and it has paid off.
Perhaps not a play with universal appeal, Love, Love, Love is nevertheless a strong enough drama to excuse its relentless bias. It’s a play on behalf of a generation which has come to question its inheritance from mum and dad. In Philip Larkin’s terms they fucked us up and then hoofed us straight through one of those high windows they were so fond of. Bartlett’s parabolic play charts our trajectory to the ground.