Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 2 November 2019
Nicholas is in pain. It is constant, all-consuming and prevents him from doing much of anything, and his parents don’t know how to help him. First he lives with his mum; then his dad and his wife and their newborn son, but the hurt is persistent, overwhelming and recognisable to those who have struggled with depression or poor mental health. This intelligent, young man’s agony is the pervasive focus of this well-made, family drama that, though formulaic and unsympathetic, captures the difficulties that ensue when mental illness has moved in.
Conflict is present from the beginning as Nicholas blames his parents’ recent divorce for his depression, and they don’t understand why he doesn’t work harder to pull himself out of it. They’re also furious that he’s become a school refuser on the sly, and won’t entertain Nicholas’ vague rebuttals about not being able to handle it.
Tension between his parents Anne and Pierre, and Pierre and his wife Sofia, add additional complexity. However, none of these people are particularly likeable. The adults are ineffective communicators at best and and dangerous parents akin to anti-vaccers at worst. Nicholas’ persistent manipulation and lies dulls the sympathy for his suffering. Their dialogue, translated by Christopher Hampton, is often stiff and cold.
Director Michael Longhurst effectively breaks up the script’s naturalism with touches of expressionist staging. Scenes in different locations merge and overlap, set and props are flung about the stage during fits of anger or frustration, but not acknowledged by the other characters. There is a mounted stag’s head on the floor in one corner, a magnificent creature felled in its prime and a fitting metaphor. It’s great to see some stylisation on a West End stage, though more would be welcome in this production.
Laurie Kynaston is haunting as Nicholas, with moments of youthful joy flashing forth from perpetual teenage despair. He is bright but vulnerable, and convincingly self-absorbed. John Light and Amanda Abbington are his well-intentioned but toxic parents; there is compelling prickliness between them as they negotiate caring for Nicholas across different households.
This portrayal of contemporary family life dealing with depression is honest and believable, yet there’s a cold judgement underpinning it. It’s not clear what about these characters and modern society Zeller finds so contemptible – is it their narcissism? Uninformed parenting? Divorce? A distrust of doctoral expertise? These all factor into the dramaturgy that careens the story to its awful yet predictable end, but the destruction that mental illness wreaks does not seem to excuse these characters’ foibles.
The Son runs through 2 November in London.
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