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Love, Love, Love review – baby boomers v generation austerity | Stage

‘The personal is political” started out as a feminist rallying call in the 1960s but become a defining slogan for an entire generation. Mike Bartlett’s 2010 drama Love, Love, Love sets out in this era of free-love, second-wave feminism and political idealism to examine the intersections of the personal and political, through the lives of a baby boomer couple.

Bartlett has a knack for dramatising families set against bigger, unspoken forces, such as in the recently staged Albion and Snowflake. Lost idealism and parental responsibility are the themes that emerge here through the central figures of Sandra (Rachael Stirling) and Kenneth (Nicholas Burns) in Rachel O’Riordan’s sparklingly satirical production.

The pair meet, get married, have children, divorce and settle into retirement over the course of the play. We follow their trajectory in three acts that take place in 1967, 1990 and 2011, each capturing a specific moment in family life and British politics.

“The music is exploding, the walls are collapsing, we’re breaking free” says the working-class Oxford student Kenneth to his brother, Henry (Patrick Knowles), before stealing his middle-class girlfriend, Sandra. She smokes pot, does not want to be tied down and unwittingly reveals her class snobberies.

Midlife disillusionment … Nicholas Burns (Kenneth) and Rachel Stirling (Sandra) in Love Love Love.

Midlife disillusionment … Nicholas Burns (Kenneth) and Rachel Stirling (Sandra) in Love Love Love. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

The couple’s drunken optimism is dimmed by the second act as Sandra and Kenneth hit the booze and have a marital meltdown in front of their traumatised teenage children. The last act focuses on a clash of values as they face a reckoning with Rose, their eldest child now in her 30s, who tells them all the ways their generation failed hers: “You didn’t change the world, you bought it, privatised it …” Bartlett seems to prove Philip Larkin’s point about the inherent dysfunctions of parenthood but he goes further to ask what exactly parents owe their children, and how one generation unknowingly fails the next.

Rose demands they buy her a house as penance for being a generation that never had to live under austerity. Both she and her parents sound variously brattish and our sympathies switch between the two.

Bartlett’s dialogue is brilliant, from the whip-smart satire to its finely observed comment on youth, ageing and what remains of idealism in mid-life. The cast is uniformly brilliant, too, in bringing out both the laughter and moments of pain, especially Stirling as the supremely self-regarding Sandra but also Isabella Laughland as Rose, who never stops sounding like Harry Enfield’s Kevin the teenager.

They age very effectively against Joanna Scotcher’s set, which beautifully encapsulates each era in three sitting rooms. Love, Love, Love is a stinging satire without the contempt that usually accompanies it. Sandra and Kenneth are not likable characters at all but we end up loving them just a little, alongside the hate.

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