Florian Zeller’s third play in his family trilogy, after The Father and The Mother, is again translated by Christopher Hampton, and brought to the London stage.
Pierre has left his former wife, Anne, and their teenage son, Nicolas, to set up a new home amd family with Sofia and their baby, Sacha. Nicolas is in a period of crisis – before the start of the play proper, he is furiously writing his thoughts in black marker on the bright white walls which encompass the set.
As Anne can no longer cope with her son’s silence and truancy, he comes to live with dad but remains isolated, capable for very brief moments of happiness, but also crushing resentment of the close-knit family of three which has been ripped apart.
The staging by director Michael Longhurst and designer Lizzie Clachan allows for ghostly presences, trashed surroundings, overlapping scenes, and unstated elegance. The white-walled space acts as a palatial living space, a hospital waiting room, and a cluttered office. It also acts as the prison within Nicolas’s mind as he struggles just to live.
John Light, Laurie Kynaston, Amanda Abbington and Amaka Okafor are all good in their roles, although Abbington is a little underused and Okafor’s Sofia remains slightly unsympathetic to the end. I disliked the attempt at a twist ending, which felt tacked on and pushed the play just beyond an effective stopping point.
There are excellent scenes: Pierre’s impotent fear at his son’s attempts to hide his physical and emotional pain; the “Happy” dance sequence; the icy coolness of the first scene between Pierre and Anne set against their closeness in the hospital; the guarded conversation between Sofia and Nicolas as she gets herself ready for a night out.
Small moments within a time of depression and crisis, where Nicolas’s decline is missed by everyone around him; even, perhaps, the psychiatrist who hides behind the logic of medicine.
The Son is not quite as successful as The Father or last year’s The Height of the Storm. It has a certain emotional punch, and Zeller’s usual economical tautness of script, but for me something disconnected. Rather than feeling I was in the room with these characters, it was more outside a pane of glass, looking in from some remote spot.
By the end, it seems that this family will never fit together in quite the same way, unlike the toy trucks which are left side by side, incongruous to a grown-up space.
The Son originally played at the Kiln Theatre, and opened at the Duke of York’s on 24 August 2019 for a limited season. Photo credits Marc Brenner.