by Nadia Boujo
Alexis Zegerman’s play at the Hampstead theatre is an epic family drama about the intricate relationships between three siblings, their larger-than-life father and step-mother with emotions oscillating between love, hurt, disappointment and humour. Illness looms large with the once formidable Professor Myers shaky and wizened due to his advanced Parkinson disease, as well as the only granddaughter, Lili, being diagnosed with a fever syndrome. With Hampstead’s Artistic Director Roxana Sibert at the helm, the vivid writing and equally vibrant acting paints a rich and layered picture of the interactions of the high-achieving Myers family.
The play is set in the New York brownstone childhood home where the Professor Myers and his wife, Megan, still live – one of the many points of contention. The family are gathered together for the occasion of him receiving a lifetime achievement award as an IVF pioneer. Robert Lindsay brilliantly plays the bully Professor who at Thanksgiving forces his twelve year old son to stand up and spot the split infinitive in his report card written by his science teacher before anyone is allowed to eat. This domineering patriarch has always been at the helm of the family and even in his ailing health the profound effect he still has on his children is palpable.
His obsequious son-in-law, played by Bo Poraj, is also intimidated by this formidable scientist and provides much humour in his sycophantic attempts to engage with the Professor and family. He helps unite the brothers in their boisterous teasing (or “bullying”) of him and also highlight their lack of empathy for their uptight half-sister played by Lisa Dillon. Unlikeable as she is, you can’t help but feel sorry for a girl growing up in such a male-dominated family and unsurprisingly she is brimming with festering anger, blame and general dissatisfaction with her lot. Sympathy is also felt for Thomas, beautifully played by Alex Waldman, who despite endless therapy still hasn’t shaken the childlike need for his father’s approval. It’s easy to condemn the father and draw facile conclusions about his unacceptance of Thomas’ life choices – artist and homosexual – but their relationship is complex and there are tender moments between the two of them with gestures alluding to his father’s unconditional love.
Lili’s regular and dangerously high fevers, despite looking so well, reinforce the general message of the randomness of the cards we are dealt and also that we are at the mercy of our genes inherited from our parents – a theme that is touched upon with Anthony who is the alpha twin, very different to his brother, and arguably the father’s favourite. Played by the charming Sam Marks, Anthony is a delight to watch.
Zegerman skilfully treads a tightrope of humour and tragedy and even the mawkish ending and rather heavy-handed message of being unable to control life and achieve perfection is still rather touching. This messy and boisterous family is not as much dysfunctional as normal and it’s this authenticity that speaks to you.
On until 30 April at the Hampstead Theatre
Running time 2hrs 40 minutes