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The American masthead
1040 Abroad

The Lyons
By Nicky Silver
The Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark St, London SE1 1RU

Reviewed by Peter Lawler

The Lyons
Tom Ellis is Curtis in The Lyons. Photo: Nobby Clark
Is it possible in these death-calloused times, post-Dexter, in which we revere cancerous anti-heroes at the Emmy Awards, for a bleak tragicomedy to offer us anything new and refreshing on the stage? Through a combination of scalpel sharp dialogue and a delicate balance of high comedy and gut-wrenching pathos, the answer, at least in Nicky Silver's The Lyons, currently at The Menier Chocolate Factory, is most definitely yes. A family drama reminiscent of O'Neill, this play uses death as a centripetal force to draw the Lyons together around their dying father, before all semblance of sombre deference to the moment is lost and old secrets are dragged out into the lights of the stage leaving individuals raw, vulnerable and changed.

The main action begins and predominantly takes place in a hospital room, a thorough study in somewhat unsettling theatrical realism by set designer Jonathan Fensom. Rita is passing the time reading decorating magazines next to her dying husband Ben, deciding how to redecorate after he's gone. So far, so no-holds-barred. The two have an entirely antagonistic relationship that quickly turns into vicious comic sparring that has the audience in stitches. Still, it all feels a bit death/sitcom, especially when Lisa, Ben and Rita's daughter, enters and the conversation unnaturally escalates to a fever pitch.

It is a play that depends on what feels like a very New York Jewish rhythm of a rapid exchange of insults that rise into a concatenating cacophony and fall into utter despair in operatic waves. It comes into its own when the audience can see all four family members playing on each others' insecurities.

Consequently, the play allows the performances, which are truly riveting, to shine. Charlotte Randle's Lisa is utterly compelling, using a jittery energy to convey the sense of a woman always on the precipice of a breakdown – battling alcoholism, neurosis and feelings for an abusive ex-partner and yet so able to engender our complete sympathy.

The Lyons
Rita, played by Isla Blair, indulging in vicious comic sparring with Ben (Nicholas Day). Photo: Nobby Clark
I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortably Tom Ellis seemed to slip lankily into the role of Curtis, Ben and Rita's gay, short story writing, intellectual son, his native-sounding nasally Manhattanite strains drawing us in. But Nicholas Day was perhaps the most surprising in his ability to somehow sustain a cantankerous charm as the dying father who finds a sort of peace in one of the play's few surreal moments.

And although death gets treated casually, even dismissively, labeled as 'not all that exciting' at one point, it acts as a catalyst triggering revelations in the lives of all these complex characters, so that the real magic and beauty seems to happen when the characters stop turning on each other, and begin to take aim at themselves. It is then that the play, quite upliftingly, becomes less about death and more about life.



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