The Son opened last night at The Duke of York Theatre in London.
Written by French playwright Florian Zeller, whose play The Truth I had reviewed a couple of years ago, ’Le Fils’ was first performed in Paris at the Comédie des Champs Elysées with Yvan Attal, Anne Consigny, Elodie Navarre and Rod Paradot as the son.
This English version is directed by Michael Longhurst in another translation by Christopher Hampton. It transfers to the West End, following a run at Kiln Theatre in Kilburn.
The play kicks off with Anne, turning up at the home of her ex-husband, Pierre. She’s at the end of her tether because their teenage son, Nicolas, has been skipping school for three months. She explains that Nicolas wants to come and live with Pierre and his family. The circumstances are never quite explained but Pierre left Anne some time ago and is now living with his new partner, Sofia, and their baby son.
So Nicolas moves in. And that’s when things don’t get better.
This bourgeois appartement- in a brilliant design by Lizzie Clachan- is all clean lines and high ceilings, except for a giant bag of mess hanging like a dark cloud over the family living-room. The contents of this bag are later spilt and left all over the flat by Nicolas during a powerful and cathartic explosion of rage.
Nicolas, beautifully and sensitively interpreted by Laurie Kynaston, is in pain. In his own words : he ‘can’t manage anymore’. The hypothesis that his current state might be due to his parent’s separation is voiced early on and you don’t need to be Freud to understand that this has affected him deeply.
The drama resides in the adults’ struggle to see and properly respond to the young man’s cries for help. Early on, while he is still looking for external causes to his son’s incomprehensible behaviour, Pierre imagines that Nicolas might have been ‘disappointed in love’. He plucks the idea out of thin air, imagining some girl at school but, without knowing it, he has guessed right. Because a child’s first love is his parents… So yes, when that love breaks, disappointment ensues and, in Nicolas’ case, disappointment to the point of breaking.
Michael Longhurst’s production is fluid and masterfully paced. Early on he creates striking images and emotional depth by cross-fading certain key scenes into the next. When, for example, Pierre explains to Sofia that he cannot abandon his son, as he is still holding Nicolas in his arms from the previous scene…
The acting is impeccable throughout: John Light and Amanda Abbington are utterly believable as the concerned and clueless parents. Amaka Okafur gives Sofia the feistiness of a step mother who wants to do the right thing but not at the price of her own family and happiness.
The subject of Florian Zeller’s play is broader than ‘teenage depression’ or parent-child relations. Many things ring true like the difficulty families have in accepting a close one’s mental pain, how mysterious and incomprehensible this suffering seems to others and how unforeseeable the outcome often feels. Although the metaphorical mess is generally there for all to see, when faced with a loved one’s depression or seeming inability to cope, we often fear the worse without being able to determine whether we are worrying too much or too little.
The play’s double ending cleverly and movingly exacerbates the paralysing uncertainty families face. Will ‘everything be alright’, will things ‘get back to normal’ or ?
The Son runs until 2 November.