It is not madly outrageous to say that one of the finest writing talents to arrive on the English-speaking stage in recent times is French.
British theatre audiences first became aware of Florian Zeller with The Father, a superbly conceived work whose very structure conveys the condition of Alzheimer’s disease better than any description of it could. It was the first play by this Moliere Award-winning French author to arrive on Britain’s shores, though it was the second (coming after The Mother) of Zellor’s familial trilogy to be written.
Both works established Zeller as a writer who is as playful and audacious with theatrical convention as Pirandello, though in a very different way. So it comes as some surprise that The Son holds no such surprises.
As with most of the English versions of Zeller’s plays, this one has been translated by Les Liason Dangereuses – aka Dangerous Liasons – writer Christoper Hampton. Another Zeller constant is that the action takes place in minimalist, chic Paris apartments (design Lizzie Clachan) with big whitewashed walls. It is the kind of set that would work well if the producers wanted to recycle it for a revival of Art, the modern classic by that other fine French dramaturge Yasmina Reza.
But where Reza explores cultural politics, Zeller’s interest is states of mind. And where The Father focused on a mind-dissolving disease, and The Mother on the condition of loneliness, the focus of The Son is teenage depression.
Played here by Laurie Kynaston, Nicolas cannot bear to live with his mother Anne (Amanda Abington), nor she with him. His father Pierre (John Light) now lives with Sofia (Amaka Okafor) and their baby, which makes the opening scene, in which Anne turns up unannounced to demand that Pierre take more responsibility for his son, all the more tense.
It is a promising, tense start to the play. Yet it also might be the best scene because what follows is mostly a one-note drama that resolves in a climax that is both unconvincing and predictable.
Much of the play is devoted to the boy’s attempt to feel at home in his father’s apartment, which is made no easier by the barely hidden resentment felt by Sofia that Pierre’s time and energy are being taken away from her needs and that of their newborn.
Kynaston does a fine job depicting the fragility of a young person who just does not know “how to live life.” And Light as his well-meaning father transmits both an alpha male impatience with his son’s vulnerabilities and a deep sympathy for him too.
Yet Michael Longhurst’s elegant production, first seen at north London’s The Tricycle theatre, has the air of a show that thinks it is imparting some little-known knowledge to its audience – that children are often the collateral victims of broken marriages.
If this notion seems less than revelatory then you might wonder for whom Zeller is writing. Without wanting to invoke national stereotypes, could it be that the play’s premise is big news in a society where having an affair is seen as more normal than not having one?
If so, where the consciences of French audiences may be pricked by Zeller’s play, their British counterparts are more likely to leave the theatre with a Gallic shrug.