Julie Walters, Silly ‘Billy,’ Boring Brandt: London Stage

Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear in "The Last of the Haussmans" at the National Theatre in London. Vicki Mortimer's lavish set realistically recreates a crumbling Art Deco seaside house. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/National Theatre via Bloomberg

Grandmother Judy Haussman is a noisy, vulgar, pill-popping old hippie.

In real life, she’d be the neighbor from hell. On stage, she’s a blast.

Julie Walters (“Billy Elliot,” “Calendar Girls”) is a vibrant, funny and infuriating Judy in “The Last of the Haussmans,” a new play by Stephen Beresford at the National Theatre in London.

When Judy has a minor operation to remove a small cancerous growth, her two children come to visit in her decrepit Art Deco seaside house.

Daughter Libby (Helen McCrory) is an uptight control freak who wants to secure the potentially valuable property for herself and her brother. Son Nick (Rory Kinnear) is a self-loathing gay drug addict who can’t face conflict.

Beresford provides some juicy comic battles early in his first play, and shows he’s not afraid to tackle big themes: death, inheritance, family duty, love. An actor himself, he also knows how to gift a good line to a great performer.

Judy, her straggly gray hair frizzing over her shoulders, lights the stage. She struggles to remain true to her 1960s ashram values as the world changes around her.

“The residents’ association? They’re worse than the Stasi,” she cries, flashing her private parts like a naughty child.

Endless Battles

After the interval, Beresford’s authorial inexperience shows. The battles become repetitive and rambling. The inheritance plot sputters. Judy churns out the same sort of speeches over and over. The 2-hour-and-45-minute running time slows to the speed of a snail race.

Could director Howard Davies not have loaned a pair of scissors to the author?

Designer Vicki Mortimer creates an impressively dilapidated two-story house. It’s a colorful mess of old rugs, Indian bric-a-brac and cheap furniture.

It looks great, Walters is in top form, and there’s fine subtle support from McCrory as a harsh-voiced Libby.

Rating: ***.

Handsome Billy

In Britten’s masterpiece, the 1951 “Billy Budd,” the morally twisted John Claggart destroys the beautiful new recruit Billy Budd on board a British man-of-war.

It’s ripe stuff, with arias full of tormented passion, timber-shaking sailors’ choruses and glittering orchestration.

A new production at English National Opera has many musical merits. Matthew Rose is a subtle and seductive Claggart, and his huge ringing voice gives promise of an exciting Wotan in the future. Tenor Kim Begley has gravitas as the compromised Captain Vere, and the chorus sounds explosively good.

Conductor Edward Gardner cooks up a storm in the pit when needed and Benedict Nelson sings Billy attractively, even if he lacks theatrical vibrancy.

David Alden’s production is yet another of the soul-sapping stagings in which ENO specializes.

The players in the drama seem to be gulag prisoners and Soviet-era soldiers, a confusing choice for a naval drama. The large rusty metal panels of Paul Steinberg’s set are neither claustrophobic enough for the intimate scenes nor open enough for the exciting sea chase in Act 2. Rating: **.

Theatrical Espionage

Michael Frayn’s 2003 play “Democracy,” now at the Old Vic, deals with the West German chancellorship (1969-74) of left-wing Willy Brandt. He was brought down by the revelation that his close aide, Gunter Guillaume, was an East German spy.

The relationship between the charismatic, depressive Brandt (Patrick Drury) and the adoring Guillaume (who refers to himself as Brandt’s “Sancho Panza”) is well handled, and the ironies of their odd friendship explored with precision.

It’s not enough to make a gripping piece. Frayn also includes stodgy reams of exposition about the complicated coalition politics of the time.

Guillaume (the excellent Aidan McArdle in a terrible wrinkly wig) frequently steps out of character to address the audience or to talk to his spymaster at the side of the stage. It’s an alienating dramatic technique that makes an already dry, information-heavy piece feel even drier. Rating: **.

“The Last of the Haussmans” is in repertoire at the National Theatre. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000; “Billy Budd” is in repertoire at ENO, http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300; “Democracy” is at the Old Vic, http://www.oldvictheatre.com or +44-844-871-7628.

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Very Good
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on New York theater, Lewis Lapham on history and Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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