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FringeReview UK 2019

The Son

Fiery Angel and Gavin Kalin Productions

Genre: Drama, European Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre, Tragedy, Translation

Venue: Duke of York’s, London


Low Down

Directed by Michael Longhurst, designed by Lizzie Clachan and lit by Lee Curran. Isobel Waller-Bridge is both composer and sound designer.


Florian Zeller’s The Son completes a trilogy taking in The mother and even more famously The Father. There’s been several others in between but this prodigious output translated as ever with a lapidary fluency by Christopher Hampton seems almost like a collaboration, as indeed it is. As if Zeller’s writing for the British stage too. He certainly declares ingratiatingly ‘British actors are the greatest in th world’ which is just one reason he translates so well. His work seems curiously fitted to British theatre.

Laurie Kynaston’s Nicolas is a 17-year-old who’s moved from his mother’s flat to his father and his new wife with their baby. He’s skipping school and there’s no reason for his depression. A break-up with a girl is seized on deliciously in a Polonius-Ophelia-Hamlet misreading. Zeller’s point is that teenage or any other depression isn’t easily psychologized. Kynastons; move from moody scribbling on a wall – an OCD gesture portending a spiral – through to breezy denial, brief shafts of happiness and anger is mesmeric and centres the whole production.

Amanda Abbington’s sympathetic Anne might be expected to have some insight, since Nicolas lived with her so long. Abbington etches in someone who still loves Pierre as a late scene shows, full of civilised hurt and anxiety for Nicolas. But again Zeller’s refusal to gender understanding or empathy is salutary. Even Abbington’s character can’t enlighten.

In any case John Light’s Pierre flounders out of his depth, distracted reluctantly from work, flattered into working for a politician. Light manages that professional taking-the-talk and making it squirm. Joshing ineffectually, cajoling and finally exploding in fury at another of Nicolas’ transgressions with yet another school, Pierre’s superficial coping is revealed as bedded deeply in trauma. He relates his own father’s unloving actions; the father who’s left a hunting rifle as sole legacy.

Amak Okafor’s Sofia is a knot of anxious suspicion and desire to do right by Pierre’s son, her backfoot residual guilt masking deep resentment. She serves Nicolas’ coffee brightly, but never quite connects. Just as she feels she’s making some headway she betrays her own deep distrust by turning down Nicolas’ offer to babysit when the babysitter lets them down at the last moment.

Zeller’s deft with sashaying a linear play unshaded with narrative doubt as with The Father where the unreliable narrative refuses to let on which scenes are screened by dementia or which an objective portrayal There’s an exception near the end though. There’s also a wonderful scene that starts with Sofia’s noting her attraction to Pierre was in his bad dancing, which have them all jerking round in a grotesque mini-conga, then just as suddenly it’s over.

Latterly Martin Turner’s serious alarm-bells Doctor – a study in pained, warning concern – and Cudjoe Asare’s firm Nurse – recall The Father. As the wooden panels are drawn back we’re briefly almost in that play’s set for the big conversation about Nicolas’ future. There’s a couple of exquisitely misleading cuts and a climax and denouement infinitely affecting.

Directed by Michael Longhurst, it’s designed by Lizzie Clachan with a simple high-ceilinged eggshell-painted sliding wood panel. A reveal shows the beginnings of a smart room, grand piano and windows beyond. A large sack symbolically looms and its contents are disgorged below, as well as pant pots and chaises-longes overturned with shelving and many files. It’s lit with subtle shifts between daylight and a shaft of imagination by Lee Curran. Isobel Waller-Bridge – both composer and sound designer – scollops an edge from some liminal disturbance.

Zeller here has written yet again an explosively powerful play, deeper if not as innovative than The Father, one of his very strongest, wrought out of elemental misunderstanding and reaching down the generations with devastating force. And Kynaston suggests a terrific force of his own in the making.