Doogan (James Coe), the boyfriend of the elder Lazzarra brother, Sebbie, with Rocco (Bilal Hasna), the abusive fatherEvelina Gumileva

Sophie Leydon’s Snow Orchid is deeply uncomfortable to watch yet impossible to stop watching. It is claustrophobic, terrifying, tense, and remorselessly strips away the audience’s cathartic expectations; but also explosive, irresistible, and thoroughly compelling. There is no way not to give this production five stars. After the show, I wandered into Sainsbury’s in a daze, made a loop around the store, and left, not entirely sure what I was doing or why.

Snow Orchid stars the irretrievably dysfunctional Lazzarra family, with an abusive dad (Bilal Hasna as Rocco) coming home from a mental hospital. There is an agoraphobic, neurotic, long-suffering mum (Clemi Collett as Filumena), an older son struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, his past, and his independence (Toby Waterworth as Sebbie), and a younger son trying to deal with always being second best in his parents’ eyes (Gabriel Wheble’s Blaise). The play takes place almost entirely in the Lazzarra home and tells the story of how Rocco’s re-entry into domestic life causes the whole family to unravel.

I only have some minor nitpicks in the way of criticism. For a very brief moment at the beginning, there were some shaky moments – a line was flubbed, energy levels dipped – but these didn’t last as the actors found their feet. The set’s lack of doors and walls bothered me momentarily, but it soon came alive to the symbolic power of placing invisible barriers between the characters. Even though the set is very open, the sense of claustrophobia is not at all diminished.

Aside from Doogan (James Coe), Sebbie’s boyfriend, whom we unfortunately don’t see much of, each of the four main characters are given captivating portrayals. This is even more incredible given that this show is Hasna’s Cambridge theatre debut, and only Collett and Wheble’s second and third stage performances respectively.

Hasna’s Rocco is repentant but conscious of the futility of repentance in the face of his past misdeeds, which comes through in volcanic eruptions of anger and frustration. Collett’s Filumena is repressed emotion incarnate. We see her struggle to keep a lid on more than 20 years of trauma as she twitches, lashes out, regains control for a time, only to slip again. Waterworth’s Sebbie acutely feels the weight of being substitute husband and father and strains to balance his duty to his family against his hate for his father, his desire for independence, and his boyfriend. Blaise is the most superficially fine, but beneath that façade conceals a deep insecurity about his self-worth. Wheble’s portrayal of the moment the façade finally crumbles, deep into the second act, is nothing short of masterful.

Sebbie (Toby Waterworth) as he struggles with “the weight of being substitute husband and father”Evelina Gumileva

The audience feels at almost every moment the awful tension, the threat of violence which hangs over the entire family like the sword of Damocles, even though moments of actual physical or verbal abuse are brief. When they do come, though, they are explosive. In the most remarkable scene of the whole play, Filumena kneels and prays for a salvation that has not been forthcoming for 22 years while Rocco lashes out at her. For me, it immediately called to mind Claudius’ moment of desperate prayer in Hamlet, but charged, if such a thing is even possible, with even more emotion.

At the same time, the sense of what passes for love in the Lazzarra family is equally palpable, co-existing with and trying to survive amid the anger, hate, and frustration. Violence stalks, transfigures, but crucially, does not consume, familial love. The Lazzarras make poignant attempts to paper over the gaping chasms with the trappings of happy family life – tacky party hats, upbeat music, amateur horticulture. A shout-out is due to Lucia Revel-Chion for managing to find some of the most unconvincingly positive music to play as the pretence of domestic normality implodes around the characters. Rather than a heavy-handed portrayal of an abusive family, we get one that is far more nuanced, sensitive, and true to life.

Leydon deserves immense credit for putting this production together. The subtle finishing touches on this play can no doubt trace their genesis back to her directorial vision, while the character work she did with the cast has obviously borne fruit. On the whole, Snow Orchid is exhausting to watch, especially since it swiftly becomes obvious that there is no hope of redemption for this family, and so no hope of catharsis. But, at the same time, I could not look away. You won’t be able to either.

Snow Orchid is on at the ADC Theatre until 10 March

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