Towards the close of Jack Thorne’s new play the end of history…, David Morrissey’s character says, “It takes a lifetime to live a good life. That’s why so few are able to do it.” Jack Knowles’s warm lights flood the stage, pouring through the glass doors and foliage. Kate O’Flynn, Sam Swainsbury, and Laurie Davidson stand onstage and stare at Morrissey, eyes welling with tears.
It’s a great line, brimming with humanity. Sniffles were heard from the audience. In my peripherals I could see the man next to me tearing a piece of tissue in half and handing one to his mother, then using the other to dab his eyes. That’s nice, I thought.
When I sat down in my seat I looked at Grace Smart’s lovely, detailed kitchen design, with the portentous cracks in the walls and the tree branches peeking in through the gaps, and my eye went straight to the calendar on the wall which read “1997” in block letters and I thought, That’s a conveniently placed calendar. I sat there and thought, I know what kind of play this is going to be. And it was that play, but it also wasn’t. And, strangely, even though I was kinda dreading it, I think it might’ve been a more fulfilling experience if it had been That Play.
the end of history… is the sort of thing 15-year-old me would’ve thought of if you’d asked her what a play looked like. Set in one room, a family drama, tracking their progress (or not) over a number of years. I realised, sitting there, watching this family misunderstand each other (both wilfully and unwilfully) that weirdly, I hadn’t seen a well-made play on a big London stage in ages. In Maddy Costa’s piece on well-made plays, she asks Dawn Walton to describe such a play: “A specific structure, usually three acts, with a particular arc: there is a problem, this thing affects everything, it plateaus up, and there’s a fall-off, a coda, at the end.” the end of history… isn’t quite a well-made play – it consciously slips away from that, I think, to middling ends. Reviews have criticised the play’s meandering qualities, its aimlessness – but it does feel like Thorne has done that deliberately, to show the passage of time, the way people do or don’t change, the way throwaway things said by a parent can prick at your conscience and affect your decisions for years. But then again, that doesn’t detract from the fact that as a piece of drama, it just doesn’t stick the landing.
Before the end of history…, I think the last time I’d seen a piece of theatre that could only be described as a well-made play was The Ferryman, two years back. How has it been that long? Isn’t British theatre filled with this kind of thing? Immediately I thought of Andrzej Lukowski’s piece in The Stage – how, as venues have changed leadership, middlebrow, formally conventional dramas have slowly made their way out of style, and out of theatres. You barely see them anymore. “[The History Boys would probably just squeak on the National’s repertoire today. But it would seem like a throwback.” I’m glad, was my immediate thought. They’re dated. Inaccessible to new audiences. But then I remembered a tweet from a while back – I can’t remember who said it – but it was a tweet saying that sometimes these well-made plays are the most accessible forms of theatre – it just depends on the content within them. Nine Night was a conventionally well-made play – but it was the content that was arresting and new, not the form. Well-made plays are how I got into theatre initially, I realised reluctantly.
Thorne has said in interviews that it’s an intensely personal piece, and that Lesley Sharp and David Morrissey’s characters are based very much on his own parents – which obviously makes it harder to critique, but I’m giving it a go anyway. To be frank, there’s nothing that’s capital-W Wrong with the end of history… – the acting is great, John Tiffany’s direction is agile and well-observed, Thorne has a huge number of zingy lines in there – but it still left me with a strange feeling in my gut, somewhere between seasickness and hunger pangs. It’s set over twenty years, from 1997-2017. Sal (Sharp) and David (Morrissey) are watered-down firebrands, staunch socialist baby-boomers with three almost-grown up children who are dismissive of but also buckled by their parents’ ideals.
And strangely, there’s no real dramatic arc, no propulsive narrative push. There are some big dramatic moments, sure, but they feel weirdly disconnected, tonally off. It’s almost a slice-of-life play, this dipping in and out of this family’s life, like a rubber duck bobbing on a lukewarm bath. It’s discombobulating to have that wandering feeling in a three-act play, because the very act of structuring your play into three acts is a proposition within itself, a suggestion that what the audience will get will be a piece of theatre that is going to properly fulfil those dramatic beats that we are all just inherently satisfied by – like the rising action, the climax, the denouement – they are present in the end of history…, but they are muted, distant. You are left with a strange cognitive dissonance. See, I didn’t like The Ferryman, but it at least it was primally satisfying.
It is clearly so personal to Thorne – and so strangely insular despite its nods towards Fukuyama, Greenham Common, and Brexit (mercifully only mentioned once), that it can feel like you are pressing a hot palm to a thick pane of glass, willing him to let you in, to crack the window for a second. Tiffany quietly stitches the three acts together with the help of Steven Hoggett’s fluid, throbbing transitions and yet it all still remains just out of reach. There’s the impression that Thorne is looking resolutely down at the page, never up at the audience. There are moments, particularly with Lesley Sharp’s strange, difficult, hilarious, vulnerable Sal (Sharp has the most disdainful way of saying “economist” that almost makes it worth the admission price), where you feel like he is working something out to himself, something that is never made totally clear to the audience. Watching the end of history… is not dissimilar to reaching out to grab someone’s hand, only to just graze their fingertips.
the end of history… is on at Royal Court Theatre until 10th August. More info and tickets here.