Kiln Theatre, 20th March 2019
After this, The Father, the Mother and The Height of the Storm, there is still a part of me that gets antsy at the work of Gallic wunderkind, Florian Zeller, and his English translator Christopher Hampton. There is something just too clever, too slick, too contrived about his plays. Just enough experimentation to justify the theatrical form, just enough plot jumps to keep those more accustomed to naturalistic TV drama on their toes. They are technically brilliant but for me he is just a teensy teensy bit guilt of manipulating audience emotions.
Having said that, in the superb space that is the Kiln, the right ratio of stage to audience, this is an utterly enthralling, unbroken 100 minutes of theatre. The Tourist may cavil at the concept behind these plays but, once again, the reality is undeniably affecting. We are back in a minimalist, pastel painted French apartment, grand piano at the rear, on the UK stage where the other two plays in the trilogy started, this time designed by Lizzie Clachlan. This is the home of lawyer Pierre (John Light), his new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) and their new baby. And troubled son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) after he goes to live with Dad following a spell with Mum, Anne, (Amanda Abbington) after their divorce. We know adolescent Nicolas is troubled because he has skipped his new school for 3 months, writes on the wall, self-harms, bites his nails and shrugs his shoulders under Dad’s interrogation. But just to be sure we know he is disintegrating mentally he upends the flat and a whole bunch of stuff spills out a plastic bag attached to the ceiling to litter the parquet floor of the apartment. Subtle metaphor huh?
Pierre, Anne and Sofia try to help Nicolas, pleading, cajoling, arguing, listening, but eventually have to seek help in the form of a psychiatrist Doctor (Martin Turner) assisted by Nurse (Oseloka Obi, who I say deliver a fine Gaveston in Lazarus Theatre’s Edward II, though he doesn’t say much here). This doesn’t help. The ending is, in many ways, as unsurprising in its attempt to surprise as the development. Yet the dialogue, the dilemmas with which the characters are presented, the ratcheting up of Nicolas’s condition and the inability of his parents to prevent his decline is what makes the play take hold and not let go. Florian Zeller doesn’t feel the need to offer a clear explanation of why Nicolas is in such pain, surely more than the break-up of his parents: he simply analyses the consequences. I don’t know how realistic these behaviours or events might actually be, it feels a little too pat, but there is no doubting the way it connected to the audience, whether they were grandparent, parent, twenty-something or teen.
Michael Longhurst’s direction is perfectly paced, with scenes melting into each other, supported by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s delicate under-scoring and Lee Curran’s considered lighting. This allows John Light to show Pierre’s journey from brisk, business like problem solving to utter helplessness at his son’s condition, Amanda Abbington, with minimal dialogue, to communicate a mother’s incomprehension and guilt at not being able to rescue her son, and Amaka Okafor to reveal Sofia’s ambivalence, wanting to be the sympathetic outsider but caring more about her own happiness with Pierre and the needs of her new child. Martin Turner is perfectly cast as the stern, cruel to be kind, professional. However the evening, (well in this case afternoon), really belongs to Laurie Kynaston. Nicolas, on the page, only just stays the right side of over-written. It would be pretty easy, given the torment that Mr Kynaston has to project, to go too far. He does not. Bored, petulant, despairing, endearing, frightened, threatening, begging, desolate and more. We’ll being seeing a lot more of young Laurie.
So another hit to follow the slippery study of dementia in The Father, the pain of bereavement in old age in The Height of the Storm, and the dissolution of The Mother whose children have left the nest. In the right hands, Mr Zeller’s mix of contextless, multiple perspective, “unravelling of the mind” pyschodrama, with Christopher Hampton’s lucid translation, can be utterly absorbing even if the artificiality grates. In the wrong hands, thankfully not here and not in the other plays given the acting prowess of the likes of Kenneth Cranham, Gina McKee, Jonathan Price and Eileen Atkins, I can see it going very wrong. As, judging by the reviews in has in the transfer of The Mother to the Broadway stage with the doyenne of hauteur Isabell Huppert.