"It is a play about pain, about love and about sacrifice"Photo by Ben Nicholson with permission for Varsity

Content Note: discussion of the play's distressing content, including self-harm, suicide, and mental illness

The opening scene of The Son is like a kettle set to boil. A hum rises, to a hiss to a whistle, to a scream. The scream surrounds you at first, you are just on edge, uncomfortable but curious, as the sound builds, echoes, bounces, and penetrates the far reaches of your thought you are desperate for it to stop. Someone has to stop this unendurable tension. And then it breaks and the silence is deafening.

“It is a play about pain, about love and about sacrifice but, most of all, it is about tension or strain”

I have, to the best of my ability, expressed how I felt whilst watching The Son. It is a play about pain, about love and about sacrifice but, most of all, it is about tension or strain. The strain of pain, the strain of love, the strain of sacrifice and the audience feels every second of it. It is because of this fact, the nature of the show, that, despite its outstanding quality, it is difficult to recommend. However, particular focus should be paid to The Son’s content warning: depiction of self-harm, depiction of suicide, depiction of mental illness, jump scare, and flashing lights.

Ironically, it is the sheer quality of this production that makes it so difficult to watch. There are lots of shows with dark themes but it is not, simply, these ideas that make your chest feel tight, but the sensitivity, poise and intelligence with which they are performed. However, if you feel comfortable with The Son’s content, you will be treated to a tour de force in set design, direction and performance.

The cast is small and intimate, with clear but rich dynamics beautifully and simply expressed in each moment of staging. A perfect example of this is in the first scene where Pierre and his ex-wife discuss their troubled son. Joe Harrington dominates the stage as Pierre, his imposing frame, rolled-up sleeves and intense gaze clearly mark him as a man of action, soon to be made totally impotent by his inability to understand his son. He stands centre stage unable to make eye contact with his ex-wife, Anne, stage left. Alessandra Rey’s Anne is tired, worn but still capable of incredible warmth. She looks at Pierre, she tries not to see the ex-husband and, instead, the father of her child. She doesn’t always succeed. Stage right, is Pierre’s current wife, Sofia. Aliyah York’s Sofia is difficult, unhappy and spiky; she channels her frustration into every scene. She is a difficult character to empathise with.

“As you walk into the theatre [Flowers] is sitting on stage and the chill he emanates creeps into your bones”

As Pierre stands in the middle of the stage, to his left the woman he used to love, to the right the woman he loves now, we see him trapped between his past and his future, unable to properly exist in both. In this first scene, director Dylan Evans establishes the relationships this play is built upon and allows their complexity to grow as the tension mounts.

Alessandra Rey’s performance holds within it a small piece of everyone’s mother. With her soft smile, tentative touch, and warm embrace she lights every scene with an earnest love that breaks through her own drab sadness. Joe Harrington’s charisma and passion makes you believe the empty platitudes that tumble from his character’s mouth. But the magic of the play, the element that elevates every other aspect is Ollie Flowers’s performance as Nicolas. He is cold but fragile, lonely but desperate, intelligent but unresponsive. Flowers doesn’t dominate the stage like Harrington, doesn’t lighten it like Rey but instead, freezes it. As you walk into the theatre he is sitting on stage and the chill he emanates creeps into your bones. In moments of levity, he is charming, in moments of anger he is frightening and in his unpredictability, he keeps you, always, on edge.


Mountain View

Green Running Wilde with The Importance of Being Earnest

The Son is set almost entirely in one living room, Margaux Cooper and Matthew Wadey’s design is pivotal in bringing this set to life. With a focus on a few carefully chosen realistic props, they build a homely scene, one fit for a young family. But, in the background, they keep you reminded of the existential terror hovering over the performance with a sheer curtain diffusing light onto a disturbingly painted sheet. The sound design is also powerful: a low hum permeates through the performance, increasing in intensity in accordance with the mood on stage.

The Son at the ADC is a special production, with Dylan Evans’s sensitive direction, perfect staging and a stellar cast,  something very important was captured. Once again, I recommend you read the content warning before attending the show even with all the completely deserving praise I have given it. The Son is also raising money for Mind, the mental health charity, even if you don’t see the show you can still donate here.

The Son by Florian Zeller is on at the ADC Theatre from Tuesday 3rd – Saturday 7th May.