Wednesday 28th August 2019 at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Stories without neat and easy conclusions are often the most powerful and such is certainly the case with the Kiln Theatre’s production of Florian Zeller’s The Son. Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Michael Longhurst, this is an excellent drama but it also feels like a probing reflection of our times, shining a light on the plight of the young, the pains of parents, and the strains of modern family life. Focusing on a young man struggling with unnamed problems and the people surrounding him, this is a delicately intensive drama which is brilliantly lacking in clichés and plentiful in quality of writing and performances.
It’s impossible to bat away remembered headlines while watching The Son’s scenes of a fractious domestic set-up and the quiet spiralling of a young man struggling with huge changes in his life. An accomplished cast carry this affecting narrative with stellar performances across the board. Amanda Abbington is excellent as Anne, the concerned mother who doesn’t know how to read her troubled son or his actions – a woman whose pain is a permanent feature embedded in her face as much as her dialogue. Along with father Pierre (John Light), the anxiety of parenthood is given a raw platform which steers clear of recycled scenes of domestic unrest.
As Nicolas, Laurie Kynaston brings the flip side of the coin to light with the same sincere, raw edge. Kynaston gives a deeply sympathetic, brilliantly nuanced performance bereft of any of the sensationalistic depictions of ‘troubled youths’ cropping up in various modern writing. The distance Nicolas feels is captured well beyond performance and direction too; Isobel Waller-Bridge’s sound design sets an instant tone of discord which recurs as Nicholas’ narrative unfolds and the sense of disconnect is nicely reflected in Lizzie Clachan’s set which is both barren and chic – a vision of the comfortless comforts surrounding our troubled teen.
It is in the lighter moments that the play plants the seeds of impending upheaval most skilfully. Pierre‘s new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) is on the surface a perfectly lovely, perfectly ordinary woman, as they all are. Light and Okafor are a fantastic united force, bringing welcome humour to the story and bringing an easy relatability to the often villainous portrayal of second relationships and re-invented lives. Light’s dad dancing is a highlight of the comic relief in Zeller’s writing – something utilised incredibly well to pave the way for greater dramatic developments. After all, when family units break down and an outside influence arrives into lives which were once stable and comfortingly predictable, there are frictions and compromises which significantly shift the course of the lives of all involved.
I don’t want to say that this play simply ‘explores’ the topical runaway train of mental health because it goes beyond popular portrayals of angst or tragedy to raise all sorts of questions, pushing us to consider the unfolding narrative from all angles. Domestic dramas can often feel too ordinary but this cast and this story are exceptional in exposing the complexities behind the everyday scenes we see. It’s never just breakfast. It’s never just a dramatic exit – the precision timing of writing and performances mean that The Son both grips and puzzles in subtle ways. Better yet, despite the subject matter, it appears that the intention is not to be a formulaic tear-jerker but perhaps to disturb on educational terms instead.
Perhaps The Son’s greatest strength is its rejection of loud didacticism and brutality and its ability to depict raw experiences in powerfully understated ways. It’s a thoroughly engrossing play with powerful central performances but there are no neat answers or clear cut roles to lean on. There’s no definitive villain. Fingers can be pointed but they won’t stay on any particular theory and it remains impossible to discern any specific concrete reasons for events and feelings. Zeller’s writing encourages an ever shifting perception of each character, allowing us to recognise the very best and worst of each of them without single judgements being maintained for very long. In a world where our young people are increasingly unhappy and their parents not always in a position to help, this play lands with a plosive force.
The Son is presented by Fiery Angel and Gavin Kalin Productions. It plays the Duke of York’s Theatre until November 2nd 2019 and you can find tickets here.