Duke of York’s Theatre
Reviewed – 3rd September 2019
“an ordinary play in so many ways, and yet it is simultaneously extraordinary”
Everything about The Son is arresting. It is difficult to watch and even harder not to.
This is the final play in Florian Zeller’s loosely connected familial trilogy, which began with 2012’s The Father. Here we join Anne (Amanda Abbington) and Pierre (John Light), a divorced couple who must reconnect for the sake of their only son. Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) has been a completely different person since the divorce, and now Anne can no longer cope with his self-isolation, anger, or (as of late) truancy. Moving in with Pierre and his new girlfriend Sofia (Amaka Okafor) seems like the solution – but what was the problem to begin with? As Nicolas’ thoughts begin to unravel, so does his family’s belief in the son they thought they knew.
The Son is an ordinary play in so many ways, and yet it is simultaneously extraordinary. This is apparent even before the play begins. The sight of Lizzie Clachan’s set – a chic suburban living room flooded with symbolic pieces of debris – is enough to indicate the carefully constructed tumult that is to follow.
It is only afterwards that these objects (children’s toys, a mounted deer head) really strike the observer as important. This is because, for all the busyness on stage, it is the actors that draw all the focus. Laurie Kynaston is utterly believable as Nicolas. He stays clear of melodramatic clichés and instead pools the depths of Zeller’s writing to draw out an emotionally authentic character. John Light is fascinating to watch as Pierre, a flawed yet deeply caring father whose frustration manifests itself in uncomfortable ways. Despite the unsavoury aspects of his character, Light humanises Pierre, making his position understandable if not agreeable. Amaka Okafor transforms Sofia into a complex character, a woman who is both loving and resentful of her volatile stepson. Okafor surprises in every scene, and is able to navigate the twists and turns of her character with flair. There is strong support from Amanda Abbington, who is sadly not present enough throughout the story. When she is present, however, she radiates love and warmth, an ideal balance to Light’s ferocity.
Whilst Zeller is evasive about the details of Nicolas’ illness, he pulls no punches with how it is presented. He wrings every last drop of emotion from the scenarios he presents, investing every one with a subtly disarming twist. Zeller’s approach – to turn his characters inside out and hold them up for all to see – makes The Son all the more difficult to watch. There is a universal sense of pain here: this family is not particularly special, not marked by excessive trauma, but in many ways just ordinary, in a way that makes its dissolution even crueller. It is clear that Nicolas is surrounded by love, just not the right kind. And we as an audience know that it will never be the right kind – but we still fall in love with those moments of laughter and lightness that suggest it might be so. The vague accumulation of dread sits uneasily within these moments of joy in what is a true emotional test for even most disconnected audience member.
Beautifully and assuredly executed, The Son may mark a completion of a trilogy, but is surely the sign of many more great works to come.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Marc Brenner
Duke of York’s Theatre until 2nd November
Previously reviewed at this venue: