Review: The Fever Syndrome (Hampstead Theatre)

Alexis Zegerman’s sprawling new play focuses on family dynamics against the background of an ailing IVF specialist, Richard Myers (Robert Lindsay), whose life’s work is about to be recognised by a major award.

Set in Manhattan, in the house Myers shares with his third wife, Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath), we watch as matters of relationships, ethics and risk are explored in an eventful day.

This family – three adult children, the partners of two of them, and one grandchild – are dysfunctional and resentful. However, as they talk over each, reminisce, and argue, their relationships feel real.

Dot (Lisa Dillon) is the daughter of the first marriage. She’s desperate for another child and has had her embryos frozen since the birth of Lily (Nancy Allsop) who suffers from the ‘fever syndrome’ which gives the play its title. Dot’s husband, Nate (Bo Poraj) is a discredited scientist whose career path has took him into substitute teaching.

Alexandra Gilbreath and Robert Lindsay in The Fever Syndrome

Twins Thomas (Alex Waldmann) and Anthony (Sam Marks) have a superficial physical resemblance but are very different psychologically.They are from Richard’s second marriage and have a bond which is both uneasy and super-close. Thomas’s boyfriend of three years, Philip (Jake Fairbrother) is in IT, and seeks stability in his life.

As Richard’s Parkinson’s diagnosis has clearly begun to deteriorate, his family start to plot around money and care matters, in an increasingly tense atmosphere. None of the clocks have been wound, wallpaper is peeling off, tootsie rolls remain in their hiding places.

In a house which showcases many photos of IVF babies Myers has delivered (but not his own, or Lily), the children who now sit at the dining table as adults seem superfluous.

In The Fever Syndrome, there are many issues bubbling under the surface. There is some exploration of how embryo research can lead to nothing but healthy babies, a nod to the argument which equated the process with eugenics.

In Zegerman’s script, the fictional Myers becomes a major figure in IVF, although it is acknowledged that Mr Patrick Steptoe and his team got there first. In England; in Oldham, no less (my home town; I was born under the care of that consultancy team).

The cast of The Fever Syndrome

Megan, twenty years younger than her husband and not that much older than his children, has been left as sole carer in a house which sprawls across Lizzie Clachan’s set, split into spaces that sprout up from the open plan living and dining area, with Richard’s room at its head. She is lonely, frustrated, and proud.

Nate, a worm in human form, sucks up to the patriarch of the family. Anthony, golden boy, and Thomas, artist, are both sidelined. Dot is simply unpleasant and pushy. The ghost of her younger self, carefree and ethereal, adds contrast and context.

There is a lot going on in The Fever Syndrome, but little is resolved. Instead we watch tiny moments of connection between a family who have rarely been in one place at the same time, whether a simple hand hold or hug, a piano duet or the glimpse of what might have been. Director Roxana Silbert keeps a tight rein on multiple strands of action from a company in top form.

You can watch The Fever Syndrome at Hampstead Theatre’s Main House space until 30 April: book your tickets here.

Image credit: Ellie Kurttz