Review: The Son (Kiln Theatre)

Florian Zeller’s third play in his family trilogy sees its UK premiere directed by Michael Longhurst

Amanda Abbington (Anne), Laurie Kynaston (Nicolas) and John Light (Pierre)
Amanda Abbington (Anne), Laurie Kynaston (Nicolas) and John Light (Pierre)
© Marc Brenner

The third in French playwright Florian Zeller's family trilogy makes its UK premiere at the Kiln, following a first outing in Paris last year. 

While previous episodes The Father (which made its UK debut at the Ustinov, Bath in 2014) and The Mother (which opened at the Kiln when it was still The Tricycle, two years later) were each tightly focused on the fate of one central protagonist, The Son offers more ambiguity as to the subject of the drama. Both teenaged Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) and his father Pierre (John Light) could lay claim to that role. As the pair wrangle over the young man's depression and the challenging behaviour it prompts, Pierre's dysfunctional relationship with his own father is never far from view.

Michael Longhurst's fluid staging of Christopher Hampton's translation, in which the characters disrespect the boundaries of the scenes as written, coming on too soon or leaving too late, cleverly provides additional context for the relationships we see enacted before us. The trauma of Pierre's breakup from Nicolas's mother Anne (Amanda Abbington) following his affair with Sofia (Amaka Okafor) is there for all to see, even if relations between the trio are largely cordial now that Sofia and Pierre have had a son of their own.

Lizzie Clachan's impressive but rather cold set design really comes together in the play's final scenes, when the action switches from Pierre and Sofia's chic Paris flat to the hospital where Nicolas ends up after making an attempt on his own life. Mention must also be made of the physical chaos caused by the young man's move to Pierre and Sofia's apartment, the destruction Nicolas carries with him nodding to his own inner turmoil as well as the violence his presence will inflict on his father and stepmother's relationship.

Composer and sound designer Isobel Waller-Bridge ramps up the tension on a number of occasions with some brilliantly timed underscoring, but there are some ill-judged musical choices here too. A moment of high emotion towards the end of the play dips into mawkishness with the addition of soaring strings, for example.

Kynaston effectively conveys the liminality of adolescence, Nicolas switches from petulance to charm, despair, manipulativeness and the million other confused states in the edgelands between childhood and adulthood. It's not an enjoyable performance to watch. Abbington is heart-rending in her personification of the parental terror of no longer being able to solve your child's every woe with a kiss and a judiciously placed plaster.

Light has a more difficult job on his hands, trying to stay the right side of sympathetic with a character who doesn't always cover himself in glory in terms of his responses to the women in his life. Okafor, meanwhile, deserves praise for just about steering Sofia away from the stereotyped evil stepmother role that Zeller has written for her.

All in all, they're a persuasive bunch, keeping this gripping family drama rolling smoothly through its interval-free one hour, 45 minute running time.

What's puzzling is why Zeller has opted to write a contemporary play about adolescent mental health without any reference to social media. As an exploration of parental impotence in the face of a child seemingly set on doing himself harm, The Son is an absorbing, and uncomfortable, experience. By keeping the reasons for Nicolas's depression ambiguous, however, Zeller misses an opportunity to introduce a sense of urgency and relevance that might have benefited the play. 

Such a decision may safeguard future productions of The Son from feeling dated but does so at the expense of this current staging. If Zeller's play was more experimental in its form it might have been easier to justify the fact that it says nothing new about either adolescent mental health or family breakdown. The Son is an accomplished piece of writing, no doubt, but it doesn't feel like a necessary one.