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The Son, Duke of York's Theatre review - a piercing drama of depression | reviews, news & interviews

The Son, Duke of York's Theatre review - a piercing drama of depression

The Son, Duke of York's Theatre review - a piercing drama of depression

Florian Zeller’s play of family anguish receives a much-deserved West End transfer

Family unit tested: from left, Amanda Abbington (Anne), Laurie Kynaston (Nicolas), John Light (Pierre)Images - Marc Brenner

A tale of teenage depression and its family resonances, Florian Zeller’s The Son has a devastating simplicity. It’s the final part of a loose trilogy, following on from the playwright’s The Father and The Mother, but the new play eschews the obliquely experimental structure of its predecessors for something much more direct. Where the earlier works explored the nature of dramatic perception itself – through the prisms of dementia and psychosis respectively – The Son concentrates its stark energy on the experience of mental illness in a story that’s partly about the consequences of divorce but more notably about the sheer unfathomability – and inaccessibilty to help – of emotional distress.

Laurie Kynaston gives a truly piercing performance as 17-year-old Nicolas, the only son of a professional Parisian couple whose life has been rocked by his parents’ separation. When his truancy and growing self-absorption, which has him scribbling nonsense graffiti over the walls of his room, prove too much for his mother, Anne (Amanda Abbington), she suggests that he move in with his father, Pierre (John Light). The latter lives with his new wife Sofia (Amaka Okafor) and their young child, suggesting that such a change of surroundings might open up new perspectives for the troubled young man. But the well-intentioned support Nicolas receives there is sapped by the driven Pierre’s determined expectations of his son, an inheritance, we come to realise, from the disturbances of his own past relationship with his father.The Son-Laurie Kynaston (Nicolas), Amaka Okafor (Sofia), John Light (Pierre)The balance between control and destruction that is innate to mental illness is adepty caught in Lizzie Clachan’s set, a high, white-panelled apartment, the order of which is periodically wrecked by Nicolas’s rages and despairs (Pierre has similarly destructive tendencies, too, however he may struggle to contain them). The most notable such effect comes when Nicolas releases a jumble of haphazard personal belongings from a huge dark bag that hangs over the stage like a strange piece of modern sculpture; another distinctive prop is the huge stag’s head that sits incongruously in one corner, like some discarded trophy of masculinity, while a darkly disturbing abstract canvas hangs on the back wall. Such surroundings convert seamlessly into the anonymous psychiatric hospital settings to which the action periodically later visits.

Kynaston is outstanding in the way that he conveys, with deceptively casual clarity, the inarticulacy of depression, its inability to connect with the surrounding world. He finds his own condition as mysterious as it clearly is to those who surround him – “I’m not made for this life” is, however general, the most coherent diagnosis that he can come up with. It’s not that he’s living in total isolation: there are moments of real affection, as well as warm humour, in plenty of the play’s interactions – in one particularly touching moment, he connects with his father and Sofia as the latter remembers Pierre’s gauche hip-swaying dance moves that had drawn her to him on their first meeting (pictured above: Laurie Kynaston, Amaka Okafor, John Light).

Is it occasionally a little too cerebral, an engagement of the mind as much as the heart?

But the darkness seems to grow proportionately with the strife evolving between father and son (pictured below), and the dark heart of the play is distinctly male in its disturbance. For all his attempts at understanding, Pierre’s default mode is a dogmatic aggression that can quickly overheat into anger of an almost blood vessel-bursting nature; it's exacerbated by the demands of his professional world, such achievements being, we guess, his enduring answer to paternal accusations once levelled at him.

Amanda Abbington’s role seems somehow less finished, although arguably that’s a factor of uptight emotional restraint in itself. Christopher Hampton’s translation is beautifully lucid most of the time but he’s sparing in adapting the French setting of the original to an English-language context – though we do get a reference to Birmingham – especially on the issue of class. There’s a hint early on in Anne’s accent that she may come from a different background from the one into which she’s married, but it’s never developed, leaving us to wonder whether such crippling emotional restraint is really the same for French and British couples of a certain social environment (surely not, you would think).The Son - Laurie Kynaston, John LightIf Anne has an often unexpected coldness, it’s symptomatic somehow of the wider resonance of a play that is tight as a drum in its construction, but where such a scalpel-like examination somehow lacks much sense of the fresh air of any surrounding world – although, tragically, that fresh air is precisely the boundless draughts of Nicolas’s depression. Zeller manages drama as confrontation between two different points of view immaculately, as in a late scene in which Pierre makes his first real act of allegiance with Nicolas. And he’s no less skilful in challenging the audience’s perception of a scene as it is playing out, modulating the revelations of unfolding reality against expectations. But is it occasionally just a little too cerebral, an engagement of the mind as much as the heart?

Michael Longhurst’s richly nuanced production, transferring from the Kiln Theatre, balances such tautness of dramatic texture with a more fluid sense of family presences overlapping on stage, a sense of links and connections in situ that are lacking in the emotional landscape of the play itself. There’s an occasionally grand score from composer and sound designer Isobel Waller-Bridge that’s strong on both introductions and interludes, as well as the wisps of music weaving in and out of the text (though generous Albinoni towards the end arguably overweighs the mood). The theatrical power to Zeller’s gut-wrenching closing coda scenes is indisputable, bringing home as they do the inexorable disappointments of father-son hopes and expectations. The Son is a dark journey, but one that’s very much worth the commitment, not least for the magnificent performance of Laurie Kynaston.

Laurie Kynaston is outstanding in the way that he conveys, with deceptively casual clarity, the inarticulacy of depression

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.