The Lyons, Menier Chocolate Factory, London – review

A father on his deathbed; a family summoned to say farewell: surely the cue for a touching scene. Not in Nicky Silver’s painfully funny play (seen on Broadway and now making its UK premiere). The New York family in his drama seem to have taken Philip Larkin’s famous observation about parents and children as a directive and given it their own special twist of bilious loathing.

Rita, a well-appointed Jewish lady of certain years, sits by her husband’s hospital bed ostentatiously making plans for redecorating the living room once he is dead. “I’m dying, Rita,” he objects. “I know, dear. Try to be positive,” she retorts, blithely. Conversation during hospital visiting hours can be strained, but these two treat it as a competition in damage infliction. As the fug of mutual loathing grows thicker, it’s a relief to welcome a third party – Lisa, the couple’s daughter – and then a fourth – Curtis, their son. But the apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree. Lisa is alcoholic, divorced and needy; Curtis is a gay, would-be writer with a strangely elusive partner. Both ooze self-pity. Soon all four are embroiled in apportioning blame. It’s clear that no amount of tasteful DIY is going to paper over the cracks in this home-life.

It’s bitter stuff, acidly funny and delivered with tight timing and acute observation in Mark Brokaw’s staging (tiny details, such as busy footsteps in the hospital corridor, emphasise the disparity between the clinical, public setting and the private, hellish mess). But it’s also sad. Silver’s characters are all deeply damaged by their loveless family, but they also draw a sort of succour from it: so long as they can complain, they can avoid responsibility for themselves. And there is a healing of sorts at the end as each of them takes a modest step towards simple human contact.

It’s a play about emotional legacy which has a distinguished inheritance of its own, with echoes variously of Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill and Neil Simon. And in some ways, the play might have been more devastating if the characters were less extreme, less monstrously self-obsessed. But that is Silver’s style and it is delivered with stinging precision here. Charlotte Randle and Tom Ellis are both pitiable and infuriating as Lisa and Curtis, Nicholas Day is repellent and miserable as the father, and Isla Blair is outstanding as the scalpel-tongued mother, hiding a lifetime’s wretchedness and disillusionment behind her pitiless taunts.

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