“You can be terribly tactless Ian”
There are two ways this review could go and since I ticked the ‘fanboy going overboard’ box with a mildly amusing drunken encounter (which rebounded on me in the most unexpected way – actors read this thing?!) at the Hampstead Theatre 2 Fridays ago, I shall try to use a more measured approach here. But the uninitiated should know that I do have a slight admiration for the work of Sam Swainsbury… 😉 Anyhoo, to the matter in hand. When Did You Last See My Mother was the first play that Christopher Hampton ever wrote as a teenager in 1964, but despite his reputation has remained rather unknown.
And it is a little hard to believe as whilst it may not be the most sophisticated piece of theatre with an ending which whilst sweet is a little too neat, it contains a masterful piece of character work with main protagonist Ian that is a gift of a role for a talented young actor. Director Blanche McIntyre has chosen wisely in casting Harry Melling, perhaps the one of the kids from of the Harry Potter who has shown the most promise as an actor, on the stage at least, and he delivers an extraordinary performance.
Set in the bedsit that he shares with Jimmy, Ian is a highly intelligent 18 year old bouncing off the walls with razor-sharp wit, astute observations and a finger-wagging knowingness. But this is partnered with an emotional immaturity in the form of his unresolved but burgeoning sexuality, personified in an all-encompassing crush on Jimmy, himself an attractive young gentleman of sexual fluidity. Matters are further complicated when Jimmy’s attractive mother comes to visit, seeking respite from her domestic issues, and Ian senses an opportunity to get closer to the object of his desire but in a terribly twisted way and with dire consequences.
Melling really is superb as Ian, a bundle of awkward nervous energy, flitting from mood to mood in the blink of an eye, cutting others sharp with remarks one moment and then turning the barbs on himself with terrible self-loathing. But we never forget he is still an 18 year old boy, not completely past redemption yet as there still remains a humanity to the character that peeks through: in some respects, he reminded me of a baby Butley, before the bitterness had fully taken hold. Sam Swainsbury felt like perfect casting as Jack-the-lad Jimmy, much more at ease in the world that Ian finds so challenging and Abigail Cruttenden finds a quietly touching dignity as his mother, torn between the two worlds of opportunity and duty.
McIntyre’s production does not interfere with the original much, presenting this as a period piece but one which still chimes today. The writing, especially for the mother, may lack some finesse but still possesses a depth which is impressive considering it is coming from the pen of an 18 year old: the dull ache of sexual repression, finding oneself in a world in which one feels utterly alone and coming to terms with the pain of loving someone who does not reciprocate. I found When Did You Last See My Mother to be powerfully affecting and superbly well-balanced as Melling gives what ought to be a career-making performance.