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The Fever Syndrome with Robert Lindsay at the Hampstead Theatre – review

The world premiere production opens in north London

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Alexandra Gilbreath and Robert Lindsay
© Ellie Kurttz

It's an intriguing thing that this latest addition to the canon of the American well-made play comes from the pen of a British writer. Alexis Zegerman has crafted a captivating if somewhat overstretched family drama exploring the meaning of inheritance in all its myriad messy forms, one that shows echoes from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to HBO's Succession.

Professor Richard Myers (Robert Lindsay) is dying of Parkinson's disease. A pioneer in the field of IVF and PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis), his family have gathered in their shabby yet priceless Manhattan brownstone to see him honoured with a Lasker Award. But, naturally, all does not quite run smooth.

Granddaughter Lily (Nancy Allsop) has a rare genetic condition – the fever syndrome of the title – that makes her prone to fits. Her mother Dot (Lisa Dillon), Richard's daughter, is desperate to source money for her care and to go through IVF for another child with husband Nate (Bo Poraj), who's eager to reboot his disgraced career in research. Meanwhile twin brothers Thomas (Alex Waldmann), a gay artist, and Anthony (Sam Marks), a cryptocurrency investor, struggle in their own ways with their father's overbearing legacy, while stepmother Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath) is left carrying the can for his increasingly demanding care.

Roxana Silbert's lucid production unfolds on Lizzie Clachan's multi-storey, compartmentalised set. The various rooms are arranged like a cutaway doll's house, enabling us to witness both intimate conversations alongside family gatherings in the open plan ground floor. At one of these, a dinner, the shaking Richard implores his family not to stare at him eating ("You're boring holes into my sourdough!", he roars). Their conversation is peppered with Orwell, Van Gogh and Churchill; it captures perfectly the milieu of metropolitan intellectualism.

Zegerman dives headfirst into some big themes – biggest of all the ethics of genetic modification. Richard rails against the anti-science populists of the Republican Party, his bitter enemy (he acidly requests to have his ashes thrown in their faces). He's an unapologetic elitist, who believes scientists have every right to play gods. But it's in the more earthly observations that the play really hits home; the 12 year-old Lily's addiction to her phone screen; the way an educated family can use a Tom Lehrer song as a form of tribal bullying; the challenge of caring for elderly relatives in unsuitable homes.

Robert Lindsay wrings every drop out of the Lear-esque Richard, a snarling, wounded big beast. Lisa Dillon is an exquisitely anguished Dot (whose younger self haunts her father throughout), while Waldmann and Marks show palpable fraternal chemistry as the twins. Poraj and Jake Fairbrother (who plays Thomas's boyfriend) make for sympathetic outsiders, and Gilbreath imbues Megan with flirtatious, skittish longing ("humans are not designed to sleep alone," she tells her son-in-law). Top marks too to Allsop for ensuring Lily's condition feels wholly authentic.

Although long, at two hours and 40 minutes, the play rarely sags, largely because it sustains a gripping feeling of impending crisis. But this promised implosion never really arrives, and its surprisingly cosy ending feels anticlimactic. Its politics also seem dated to the recent past – there's a reference to Sarah Palin – and slightly behind current concerns. But as a portrait of blended family dysfunction it is highly enjoyable, while also raising provocative questions about the limits of science.