Tim Walker review The Son, which runs until April 6 at Kiln Theatre, London.
When I look back on my teenage years, I realise an awful lot of my time was spent fretting about how Peter Barkworth would cope with finding out that his wife Hannah Gordon was having an affair with Keith Barron in the BBC’s Sunday night soap opera Telford’s Change. Middle class angst was once bread and butter to television dramatists, film scriptwriters and playwrights, but then – no doubt rightly – they all switched their attentions to the travails of other social demographics.
The problems turned out to be just the same, of course – infidelity, difficult kids, alcoholism etc – but they were played out by actors who didn’t speak the Queen’s English in quite the way of the late Mr Barkworth. There is therefore something quaintly old-fashioned about the French writer Florian Zeller’s The Son, which tells the story of an unapologetically middle class father’s problems with an adolescent child who can’t cope with the break-up of his marriage. The lad withdraws within himself, bunks off from his private school, starts self-harming and his mood swings becoming increasingly violent. No one around him – least of all his hapless father, whose parenting skills frankly leave a great deal to be desired – understands what’s going on. Eventually he starts talking about suicide and he’s admitted to a psychiatric ward.
It is a bleak piece, translated from the original French by Christopher Hampton, and performed with great emotional literacy by John Light as the father, Amanda Abbington as his former wife, Amaka Okafor as the woman he leaves her for and Laurie Kynaston as the profoundly troubled son.
The plumb role is obviously the last mentioned and Kynaston gives it everything he has got: he delivers a performance of mesmerising intensity.
There are some insightful scenes about the chasm that separates the generations – the father is mystified when he buys his son a jacket only to be told ‘I’m not sure people of my age wear jackets’ – and I was struck, too, by the natural parents’ helplessness when their boy ends up in hospital under the care of a briskly efficient doctor and nurse, played respectively by Martin Turner and Oseloka Obi.
The work completes a study of a single family observed from different vantage points and times that started with The Father – when the focus was on dementia in later life – and then The Mother, about depression. The strength of The Son – as with Zeller’s previous works – is that it doesn’t attempt to answer questions, it only asks them. It is a play populated not by heroes and villains, but only human and fallible characters.
The director Michael Longhurst – soon to take over at the Donmar Warehouse – keeps the focus unrelentingly on the teenager at its heart who is clearly going through his own very personal hell. Don’t go along expecting any amazing message, however, beyond that once espoused by no less a thinker than Donald Rumsfeld: stuff happens.