Florian Zeller’s The Son comes crashing into the Kiln Theatre, with emotional clout, ice cold writing, and knife-twisting brutality. The third play in his hit trilogy, it may prove to achieve as many accolades as it predecessors. It’s depiction of the mental health crisis of a teenager in the midst of his parents’ divorce is a coming-of-age drama quite unlike anything else I have seen before.
Occasionally, small moments that seem to have been lost in translation surface within the piece. Despite Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation, there are sections that are verging on melodramatic, but this fits nicely into the classic French style of more open displays of emotion. If it is a little startling for us buttoned-up Brits, it might not be such a bad thing. No, this play is a slick masterpiece that takes a handful of our heartstrings and yanks them repeatedly and relentlessly.
How, you may ask? Firstly, there is Zeller’s uncomfortable, off-kilter writing that explodes into emotional fireworks before descending again into calmer seas. The structure and pace of the play is unforgiving, and with each scene bleeding into the next as characters appear to overlap the coming scene, the whole production has a snake-like motion.
Secondly, we have an aesthetic that might be more at home in a Tom Ford film. Lizzie Clachan’s empty modernist living room with playful touches and stylish yet relevant costumes perfectly compliment the plays swish Parisian setting. Additionally, the clever idea of the set dramatically becoming cluttered with teenage flotsam and being cleaned as the lives of the characters convexly become more complex, is a nice touch.
Thirdly, we have a selection of very talented actors breathing life and love into the script. Amanda Abington (Mary from BBC’s Sherlock) and John Light play the suffering parents brilliantly, giving us shades and nuances of emotion that are needed in a story that is sadly familiar to some of us.
Amaka Okafor brings warmth as the new partner Sofia, and adds the final puzzle piece to this triptych which creates a balanced depiction of a modern family landscape. The backbone of the show, Laurie Kynaston as the eponymous Son, perfectly manifests the onset of depression. His confident depiction of Nicholas’s loneliness and sensitivity sings with a delicate capacity that jettisons the play into the theatre world’s stratosphere.
What is most arresting overall is the subject matter, which genuinely dragged a tear out of this tired pair of blinkers. It certainly isn’t the first story depicting teenage struggles with depression and the breakdown of a nuclear family. Yet, it is retold with a depth and complexity that many lack, managing not to overall moralise or demonise. Inevitable but infinitely watchable, like Orpheus and Eurydice, the fact that we can see the end looming doesn’t mean that the play doesn’t have secrets yet to be unveiled. Loaded with a sense of impending doom and with an ending that will leave you breathless and choking on the sudden amphibian in your throat, this tale is a tragedy for the digital age.
The Son asks new questions and leaves the answer unspoken. We come out broken but impressed by such a fascinating exploration of the age-old struggle of parenting, that “sometimes love isn’t enough.”
The Son is playing until 6 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Kiln Theatre website.