Mark Ludmon reviews the West End transfer of Kiln Theatre’s The Son by Florian Zeller at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London.
With their shifting, slippery narrative structures, Florian Zeller’s previous plays The Father and The Mother capture the fractured experiences of dementia and psychosis. In The Son, he reverts to a more naturalistic style of storytelling, forensically examining how a family deals with adolescent depression. But, under director Michael Longhurst with a quartet of powerful performances, it has a shattering power in spite of its more conventional linear structure.
Transferred from Kiln Theatre, this is the last part of a loose trilogy exploring the impact of mental health on families. Some of the names are the same as the previous plays but it is a new set of characters with their own personal histories. Successful lawyer Pierre and his ex-wife Anne struggle to come to terms with the discovery that their teenage son, their “little sunbeam”, Nicolas, is suffering from depression. They want it to be just a phase, a bit of teenage moodiness, a temporary reaction to the marriage break-up, but even Nicolas doesn’t understand what is happening to him. Even Pierre’s new wife, Sofia, tries her best to help the troubled boy but it is painfully clear that his parents are deluding themselves and there are no easy solutions.
In these three plays, Zeller is not simply presenting the pathologies of mental illness but focusing on how these illnesses can impact on individuals within a family. The Son could just as easily be called The Father too as it is as much about how Pierre is ill-equipped to deal with his son after being brought up by a distant, authoritarian father. Played brilliantly by John Light, he desperately wants to break the pattern but doesn’t know-how. The women in his life are less developed but Amanda Abbington and Amaka Okafor give strong performances as Anne and Sofia, struggling in their own ways to deal with the intrusion of depression into their lives. Laurie Kynaston is impressively controlled and nuanced in portraying Nicolas’s descent into depression, from quiet suffering to destructive outbursts.
Translated by Christopher Hampton, this is a sharply written, constantly gripping drama even though it may not be saying anything new about depression. While the structure may be less challenging than the previous two plays in the trilogy, Longhurst adds more abstract details in the staging, with characters haunting each others’ scenes, adding to the fluidity of the action and reminding us that each stage of the illness involves everyone in the extended family. Lizzie Clachan’s set evokes the homes of wealthy Parisians but, as in The Father and The Mother, it is a clinically white backdrop for examining the repercussions of mental illness, shifting location and mood thanks to Lee Curran’s skilful lighting and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s sound design. Heartbreaking and compelling, The Son is tackling not just the impact of depression but the impossible challenges of being a parent.
Running to 2 November 2019