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Review: Things I Know to Be True (Lyric Hammersmith)

Frantic Assembly and State Theatre Company present Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's new play about family and marriage

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This new play by the Australian playwright Andrew Bovell plays with a very Tolstoyan question: what makes a happy family happy and what are the internal tensions that can turn contentment to unhappiness?

First seen in Adelaide (where it is also set), and a co-production between Britain's Frantic Assembly and The State Theatre Company of South Australia, it focuses on the Price family – mum, dad and four children – as the closeness they thought they felt is stretched and fragmented by the pressures of growing up and moving apart. One daughter suffers a broken heart, another leaves her own children to pursue a life and affair in Vancouver. The boys' adventures are more shocking. Yet love – and the ties that bind them – remain, painful but real.

Bovell is good on the daily frictions of family life, the little psychological dramas that lie under the seemingly smooth surface. And he understands the way that parents feel beached by the tides of change. "It wasn't meant to be like this," says the father, Bob, sadly. "I thought they'd be like us. But better than us. Better versions of us."

This is observant and the play is often perceptive and funny. It is in fact, at moments exactly what I was writing about last week when I said I'd like to see more dramas about relationships between mothers and their children on stage. Yet, though it seems unfair to grumble, Things I Know to be True didn't ring true. The best sections are the least dramatic; the battles between Imogen Stubbs's Fran and her eldest daughter Pip (a wonderful performance of hurt and longing from Natalie Casey) are powerful and the scene where the oldest boy Mark (Matthew Barker) reveals his secret has the uncomfortable tang of honesty.

Yet Bovell over-eggs the pudding. There is simply too much drama and revelation as the play progresses. It becomes melodramatic, like watching the plots for a hundred episodes of Neighbours in just two hours. The gradual ramping up of both sentimentality and incident leaves Stubbs having to play too many scenes where she is simply angry; you can buy her frustration at sacrificing her life for her ingrate kids but not quite this much unmeasured rage.

There are conflicting pulls within the staging too. I'm not sure that casting British actors with their natural accents and leaving them living in Adelaide actually works; it is supposed to emphasise the universality of the play's themes, but leaves it stranded between two worlds. The same effect arises from the twin directing efforts of Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and State Theatre's Geordie Brookman.

The production is peppered with Frantic Assembly's trademark physicality – tables that shoot into place, bodies lifted tenderly as they speak, a slow-motion leaning towards news of tragedy, a gentle dance, or ritualised hand-holding. But then suddenly all that activity stops for scenes of standing-still naturalism, or uncomfortably blocked confrontation. The combination doesn't always work, and I found myself increasingly irritated by the way Nils Frahm's music is used to underscore a lot of the action.

None of which is to say that there aren't moments of affecting emotion and great beauty. Geoff Cobham's set with its picket fence and hanging, gleaming lights, provides the perfect setting and both Kirsty Oswald as the youngest girl Rosie and Ewan Stewart as the bewildered but caring Bob offer performances of luminous subtlety.

Things I Know to be True runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 1 October.