Okay, it’s a compelling play, but The Son still follows the relatively conventional trend in contemporary plays where life goes on, despite its imponderables and idiosyncrasies, before a Very Critical Incident occurs that shatters the hearts and minds of the play’s characters. At least here there is an acknowledgement by Pierre (John Light) and Anne (Amanda Abbington) that something isn’t quite right with their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston). He hasn’t attended school for a significant period – in this regard, he’s not entirely unlike Willy Loman in the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman, who continues to dress for work every weekday and leaves the house at a time in the morning that would give the impression he’s commuting to the office, even after he’s been fired.
The critical incident is an impactful moment – and one which I have no qualms in admitting that I didn’t see coming. Sofia (Amaka Okafor), Pierre’s second wife, didn’t help matters by speaking so disparagingly about Nicolas while he was still in the house (ooh, look, an evil stepmother: how original). Overhearing it, nothing Pierre could say to smooth things over ultimately had much effect. A nurse (Cudjoe Asare) and a doctor (Martin Turner) complete the set of on-stage characters.
Because of the very nature of Nicolas’ state of mind, he is not easy to ‘read’. While there are fleeting moments of bliss, he is usually extremely unhappy, and openly admits to his father and biological mother that he feels as though he cannot go on, struggling to cope with daily living. Pierre clearly loves him, as does Anne, but both are, in their own ways, ill-equipped to deal effectively with the complex issues the (non) schoolboy faces. Eventually he ends up in a secure unit of some description, which he utterly hates, and after a week, begs and begs his parents to let him come home.
Pierre is, frankly, frustrating in his inability to understand that his cross-examinations (for that is what they are) of his own son aren’t getting anyone anywhere: Nicolas doesn’t know why he feels the way he does, and keeps saying so, because – um – he is genuinely unable to comprehend the nature of his condition. That is perhaps the saddest thing of all about this play (well, that and the critical incident). For Sofia, there are also other things going on behind the scenes, but this play is not called The Son for the hell of it, so Okafor’s character is relatively underdeveloped.
Attitudes towards mental health are changing in modern society, but not fast enough for young Nicolas. That Pierre now has another son is both encouraging and downright frightening, if only because the younger one might end up following a similar path to Nicolas. While the storyline is compelling, the set is messy for a production that has a residency in a West End playhouse: it can be worked out whether a scene is in Pierre and Sofia’s place, Anne’s place or elsewhere, but this is down to the dialogue rather than the set, which doesn’t change nearly as much as it could.
That said, it is a decent play. It’s not exactly ground-breaking but there are impactful moments and some aspects of it will be relatable in some way for many. Thoughtful and disturbing in equal measure.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.