Family melodrama is a sheer joy

National Theatre
The scene is a grotty but desirable house on the Devon coast, decked in Indian blankets, hippy memorabilia and booze bottles. Onto this set appears the rake-thin, sexy Helen McCrory, playing edgy single mother Libby; her newly arrived ex-junkie brother Nick, endearingly played by Rory Kinnear, and soon after, Libby’s furious and articulate daughter Summer (Isabella Laughland).

Brother and sister are there to help their mother, ageing hippy Judy Haussman (referred to by her children, as is the custom with posh hippies, as “ Judy” rather than “Mum”), sort through her belongings. Nick trembles on hearing her shriek from her bedroom – where she is jauntily recuperating after a skin cancer scare – and Libby exudes discomfort and stress.

Living with your mother, especially when she’s Judy Haussman, appears to be a task too much for the sane. But when Judy (Julie Walters) emerges, she is brilliant – brilliant to watch, anyway, not so much to be parented by. Pajama-clad, her long grey hair swinging in a rope, she trills about revolution and the “republic” of the body in a cut-glass accent (a high society drop-out, she used to squat in Belsize Park and spent years “blissed out” in India).

Shouting “darling, you’re WONDERFUL” at every opportunity is all very well, but the future of the house is causing Judy’s children great angst and a lifetime’s worth of resentment. Nick and Libby feel it’s been promised to them but Judy seems to have other ideas, and it is the thought of this betrayal – edged with real financial worry – that causes the play’s central ruction.

But it’s not just the internal question of legacy (to what degree it is purely financial rather than nostalgic for Libby and Nick remains unclear) that scuppers the family’s peace. Libby’s weak spot is men and she falls prey to the attentions and false promises of yet another, the GP who tends Judy (and who Judy rather adores). Meanwhile, handsome pool-boy Daniel is the object of the gay Nick’s love, but has a soft-spot for Libby.

The play is a joy. McCrory’s Libby is taut, raw and interesting, a keen examination of the tricky role it is to be daughter, lover and mother in one. Judy – despite her infuriating past and cranky-sounding ideals – turns out to be truer to the revolutionary spirit than one might initially think, and Nick is the cleverest ex-junkie you’ll see on stage any time soon.

It is a jamboree of fine British acting – what is lacks in profundity it makes up for in the sheer appeal of its performances.