REVIEW: The National Joke, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Cate Hamer in The National Joke
Cate Hamer in The National Joke

When was the last time you saw a family-in-conflict drama? The answer is probably the most recent Alan Ayckbourn premier.

Torben Betts’ new play offers a chance to sample another slice of domestic life and features a daughter leaving home; a frenetic and down-trodden mother; a garrulous grandmother; a self-destructive Tory MP and mid-life crisis boyfriend.

Each scene is played as a fugue, with shifting alliances and antagonisms counterpointing characters that speak, but rarely communicate. The only event that unites the three generations of women is their wonder at the total eclipse of the sun, beautifully realised by Jason Taylor’s lighting design.

Philip Bretherton’s odious local MP, an alcoholic relapsing into oblivion, hastens the end of his career by engaging in a beer-fuelled affray on a nearby beach. Given that his character is named Rupert, surely having his mobile phone sparring partner named Tarquin is laying it on a bit thick?

The core characters are the three women: grandmother Mary, Annabel Leventon; mother Olivia, Cate Hamer and daughter Charlie, Catherine Lamb. Each has a story of a disintegrating personal life compounded by collective failures in relationships.

Charlie’s solution to her multiple problems is to escape to Australia, but only if she can evade the attentions of Dan, Guy Burgess, for whom she feels gratitude, but nothing more. It’s a complicated web, beautifully played out by a very good cast.

By Mike Tilling