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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Son
Kiln Theatre  Spring 2019;  Duke Of York's Theatre Autumn 2019

The Son is a play about people in deep emotional and psychological pain. But it is so cool and distant in its presentation that you may have difficulty caring.

Nicolas, the teenage son of divorced parents, is depressed, sullen, withdrawn, secretive, self-destructive, violent, bratty and manipulative, all without the ability to explain himself, even to himself. In short, a typical teenager on a bad day.

Except that Nicolas really is clinically depressed and suicidal, mentally ill in a way that his parents and stepmother are ill-equipped to recognise, much less help him with.

And here is the one interestingly original touch in Florian Zeller's play it is not about Nicolas. His focus is on how this frightening enigma in their midst affects the others.

Nicolas is not just a worry and irritation, the play says. He carries a seed of unrest that affects everyone else. Beginning with blaming each other and progressing to squabbling over other issues and then to questioning their own values and identities, the adults find their lives crumbling almost as quickly and frighteningly as his.

But Zeller keeps us at emotional arm's length from all this, letting us observe without really entering the world of pain he presents.

In the three other plays (The Father, The Mother, The Height Of The Storm) that have made London something of a Zeller festival in recent years, the playwright made very effective use of expressionism, presenting a character's impressions of reality with the same solidness as the actual truth, and making us sort them out, so that we experienced what life was like for the person onstage.

Except for one brief scene Zeller avoids that device here, but he offers no alternative way of drawing us into the story or the characters. The Son is just too removed and clinically objective to become emotionally real to us.

The translation from the French by Christopher Hampton (Zeller's usual translator and, of course, a skilled playwright himself) is as smooth and playable as you could ask for. But neither he nor director Michael Longhurst can bring the play fully alive.

The cast Amanda Abbington (mother), John Light (father), Laurie Kynaston (son) and the rest all do all they can with what is given them, and all look hobbled and frustrated by not being able to bring us any further into their characters.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Son - Kiln Theatre 2019

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