Duke of York’s, London, Saturday 2nd November, 2019
French playwright Florian Zeller’s searing family drama – helpfully and brilliantly translated into English by Christopher Hampton – deals with the effects on young lad Nicolas when his dad leaves his mum and sets up a new family with a new wife and a new baby. It’s not an uncommon situation but Nicolas takes it very badly, spiralling into mental illness and out of control.
Laurie Kynaston is magnetically good as the volatile Nicolas, going beyond teenage tantrums in his portrayal of the boy’s disturbance. It’s heart-breaking to watch and we feel as helpless as his baffled parents. Mum (Amanda Abbington) is forthright in her condemnation of her ex-husband’s inactivity. Dad (John Light) struggles to access his emotions but when he does, it’s explosive. New wife Sofia (Amaka Okafor) tries to make the best of things – such is Zeller’s writing, we appreciate everyone’s point of view.
Mostly, this is about the dynamics between father and son in the light of mental illness, as they try to negotiate a peace and a way forward. The play highlights how unprepared we are to deal with loved ones afflicted in this manner. “Love is never enough” says Martin Turner’s Doctor, rather starkly, as events culminate in devastating scenes.
Lizzie Clachlan’s set with its white walls and unfolding panels, showing rooms behind rooms, enables director Michael Longhurst to stage simultaneous scenes: while characters interact, we see someone else elsewhere in the house, and so on. The mess created by Nicolas is represented physically and symbolically.
Longhurst elicits powerful and compelling performances from everyone, compounding the sense of impending doom with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s unsettling sound design. It’s not all dread though; there’s a glorious scene of Dad-dancing (John Light has all the moves!) and the occasional glimmer of hope – making the darker moments all the more distressing.
Utterly compelling and almost unbearably moving, this is one of the most powerful pieces I have ever seen. I only wish I’d seen it before the final day of its run so I could go back and see it again!
Give it every award going!