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This is the first transfer from the (renamed) Kiln Theatre in Kilburn and is a deserved hit for them. Just a few short years ago the young French playwright Florian Zeller was virtually unknown outside France. In 2016 however he joined Ayckbourn, Williams and Agatha Christie in the record books by having three plays running simultaneously in the West End.
This is the end of a sort of triptych of domestic plays (they’re just thematically linked) following The Father about a man with dementia and The Mother about a woman at empty nest stage who is in the throes of psychosis. The Son is a portrait of the impact of adolescent depression on a family.
These follow other hits like The Truth about the consequences of an adulterous relationship and The Lie which looked at the same affair from an opposite perspective. Last year’s West End hit The Height of the Storm is about to open on Broadway and Zeller’s star is likely to soar further when the film version of The Father, which he has directed, is released, as it stars Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.
If Turgenev and Friel hadn’t nicked it first the more accurate title for this should be ‘Fathers and Sons’ because, while the catalyst for the drama is the listless troubled teen, what gives it such resonance is how it portrays the many shades in a father-son relationship and the scene stealer here is actually John Light as the father.
Light plays Pierre a successful Parisian lawyer who has left his first wife Anne (Amanda Abbington) and his 16-year-old son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) for a new life with Sofia (Amaka Okafor) and their recently born son. Anne comes to him in despair that she can no longer cope with Nicolas and Pierre reluctantly agrees to take him in. Zeller is wonderful in mapping the rocky emotional terrain of second marriages and the bitter resentments about who exactly is “responsible” for what.
Initially resentful and angry at his son for having been skipping school for months on end he realizes, after discovering scars on his arms, that Nicolas needs more attention from him. This causes a rift with Sofia who resents the loss of Pierre’s attention. Nicolas is prone to even more silences and evasions than the average teen but has also taken to hiding other people’s belongings and scribbling illegible messages on the walls.
For an upper middle-class Parisian family, they seem curiously un-therapied, which it turns out is their downfall. Nicolas soon deteriorates and after overhearing a row concerning him, he attempts suicide. The play then hinges on the heartbreaking struggle the couple have with the doctors in the psychiatric clinic who insist he stays and Nicolas who pleads to be let out.
Director Michael Longhurst brings a Bergmanesque intensity to the play which unlike others by Zeller is structurally quite straight forward. He focuses on drawing out painfully intense performances from the ensemble cast. Light is mesmerizing, capturing the dynamism, the naivete, the arrogance and the pain of the father who, like any father in that situation, is essentially utterly lost. There’s a vivid rawness to Kynaston’s Nicolas too. He can’t explain his condition any better than that “life is weighing me down” but he perfectly captures that twin track of self-awareness and total helplessness existing at the same time which characterizes depression. Okafor bravely doesn’t try to soften the edges of Sofia’s selfishness and Abbington gives an acutely sensitive portrayal of the mother.
The play deftly examines the price we must pay for our own happiness when there are others dependent on us and, of course, there are no answers to that.