The West End is no stranger to the name Florian Zeller. When I interviewed him back in June 2016 at the opening of his comedy The Truth, the Paris-born playwright had already enjoyed success in the UK with The Father and The Mother. He told me he was planning to write a play called The Son which he hoped would premiere in London…
Well you read it there first.
And three years later here I am at The Son’s West End opening – a few months after its debut at London’s Kiln Theatre.
Be warned: this is not a comfortable watch – especially if you are the parent of a teenager. The signs are there even before the lights go down. On arrival, the audience is greeted by a deep rhythmic throbbing sound and the sight of a boy writing on the walls of a pristine apartment. A huge bag stuffed with unseen objects is suspended above the stage like a sinister piñata.
The story begins with Anne (Amanda Abbington) arriving at the home of her former husband Pierre (John Light) and his new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) to reveal that their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) has been skipping school for three months.
“Don’t worry, everything will go back to normal,” Pierre reassures her. It’s a line that echoes chillingly in one form or another throughout the play.
Nicolas, however, is far from alright. He’s self-harming, depressed and consumed by anxiety about changing schools. After he moves in with Pierre and Sofia (and their new baby) it becomes clear he harbours huge resentment against his father for breaking up the family home to be with another woman.
Zeller powerfully explores family dynamics, guilt and father-son relationships throughout The Son’s intense one and three quarter hours.
There is much that is close to perfection in Michael Longhurst’s production: in particular the casting and the fluid use of the set.
Abbington and Light brilliantly convey raw frustration and fear in their exchanges with each other and their troubled son. Kynaston fills the character of Nicolas with so much anguish it’s sometimes almost too painful to watch.
There are shards of joy that pierce the gloom, such as a wonderful shared family moment that involves some hilarious dad-dancing to the song Happy.
Longhurst makes full use of Lizzie Clachan’s opulent yet clinical apartment set with its folding doors, choreographing the characters so that they appear in some scenes like silent ghosts.
But there are some frustrations too. So much of what happens is entirely predictable. There’s a reference early on to a possession of Pierre’s that might as well be accompanied by a klaxon and a flashing red light.
And amidst all the beautifully-acted pain and rage towards the end, it seemed unnecessary to soundtrack it with a well-worn classical piece seemingly designed to open the tear ducts.
Bleak as it is, Zeller’s play is an intelligent and moving portrayal of teenage depression that will linger long in the mind.
The Son is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 2 November.