The Fever Syndrome
Hampstead Theatre, London, until April 30
A round of applause, first of all, for Lizzie Clachan, who designed the huge townhouse in which Professor Richard Myers plays host to his dysfunctional family in Alexis Zegerman’s play The Fever Syndrome. The punters get to see Myers – wheelchair-bound with Parkinson’s – ascend on his stairlift to tyrannise family members on all three storeys.
A great set such as this always raises hopes the drama that’s about to be played out upon it will be worthy, but, alas, in this instance, it’s not. There has been no shortage of fine plays about dysfunctional family gatherings – one thinks of Bill MacIlwraith’s The Anniversary and just about everything Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams ever wrote – and this isn’t really in their league.
Myers – played by Robert Lindsay – is an IVF pioneer who, after a career creating new life, is seeing his own being slowly taken from him by Parkinson’s. It is of course a horrible disease – and shamefully there’s been little significant progress in treating it for almost half a century – and yet Lindsay elects to play the condition largely for laughs. “The shake,” he says at one point, “it burns calories. The neurological disease diet.”
I felt the illness was used exploitatively and tastelessly in this play and Lindsay seemed to have little idea how to portray its symptoms. Ian McDiarmid was eminently more convincing playing Enoch Powell stricken by the disease in later life in What Shadows. McDiarmid certainly recognised that the disease is no laughing matter.
There are all the usual rows about inheritances and responsibilities and the actors do their best with it – Alexandra Gilbreath as the patriarch’s third wife and carer, Lisa Dillon as the highly-strung Dot, Alex Waldmann as a doleful, artistic type and Sam Marks as his much more charismatic twin.
The play goes on for two and a half hours with little to say for itself under Roxana Silbert’s meandering, listless direction. It’s a pity that, when the curtain finally came down, Miss Clachan, the set designer, couldn’t get to take a bow: she at least has star quality.