Duke of York’s Theatre – until 2 November 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
After The Father and The Mother, Florian Zeller’s trilogy, translated by Christopher Hampton, ends with a disturbing glimpse at the devastation that mental illness can inflict on a family.
After the breakup of his parents’ marriage, Nicolas spirals into depression and self-harm, unnoticed by his self-absorbed parents until his school informs them that he has not attended for months. Nicolas asks to leave his mother’s home and to move in with his father, his new partner and baby son. Enrolled in a new school, and in a new environment, Nicolas’s family think that he will recover and get back to “normal” without any outside help.
The entire play is basically a checklist of what NOT to say and do to help recovery. The generational inability to understand each other is well written, with John Light full of bluster and frustration as dad Pierre, unable to understand why his son is ill and reverting to telling Nicolas to pull himself together and get on with it in as many ways as possible, and repeatedly comparing his difficult childhood to Nicolas’s and crowing about how he just struggled through. Mum Anne (Amanda Abbington) flits in and out of the play, seemingly lost without her husband and so caught up in her own pain that she didn’t see Nicolas’s. Abbington is luminous in an underwritten role. Amaka Okafor impresses as Pierre’s new partner, Sofia, obviously worried for her husband and his son, but prioritising the safety of her own son when Nicolas’s behaviour becomes more unpredictable. Laurie Kynaston is remarkable as Nicolas, flipping from bouncing joy to near catatonic despair in an instant. He handles his lines brilliantly, utterly convincing as a disturbed young man who struggles to understand his own feelings, let alone describe them to his parents on demand.
The inability of the parents to help Nicolas, and their reluctance to seek professional advice is sketched sympathetically by Zeller. Even though they are doing the wrong thing, they have the best intentions, and the misplaced shame and stigma of mental illness, and baggage from Pierre’s own childhood are explicit in the writing. The tragedy the audience expects does not disappoint, and the final scene leaves you with a sense that there’s more heartbreak to come for the family – but this deeply emotional subject somehow seems clinical in this play. Excellent writing, a wonderful cast, crisp direction from Michael Longhurst, and inspired set design from Lizzie Clachan, but as a whole, the play left me cold.