The Son at The Duke of York’s Theatre: ‘A stellar cast make the show all the more heart breaking’

At one of The Son’s many painful moments, Anne asks her son Nicholas if he is still writing. A dismissive sigh suggests that Nicholas no longer puts pen to paper, yet before Florian Zeller’s play begins audiences have seen the young man write on the panels of Lizzie Clachan’s sets. Whilst Nicholas’ illegible writings mostly stay in one panel, they slightly sprawl out, muddled, with no consistently in size or direction to the rest of the wall. This is clearly a mind frantically spilling over and, for Nicholas, there is nothing to stem the tide.

Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Michael Longhurst, Zeller’s play is an arch reminder of the mental-health crisis that is affecting the youngest members of our population. Nicholas is 16 and should be preparing for his GCSE, but after his father Pierre left his mother for Sofia several years previously he has struggled. No longer attending school and self-harming, Nicholas opens declares that he is “tired of being in pain”. 

Powerful moments litter the play, made possible by Hampton’s efficient translation. Longhurst’s production emphasises the invisible discord and pain depression can cause. The play is, vitally, set in a plain home environment with tall white walls, reminding us that this could be anyone we know. Where the adults have explained Nicholas’ behaviour by chastising him. The phrase “I don’t understand” is uttered by many of the cast throughout the show, and in not listening the unspeakable happens.

Laurie Kynaston in The Son.

A stellar cast make The Son all the more heart breaking. Laurie Kynaston as Nicholas puts in a performance of indescribable suffering. Angry, scared. hurt: the range Kynaston brings to Nicholas is deeply moving. Amanda Abbington, though she appears sparingly, has a raw desperation as Anne, and Amaka Okafor as Sofia aptly roves between hesitancy and maternal care with calm confidence. Though he wildly gesticulates, John Light’s portrayal of Pierre likewise moves between guilt and hope that he can help his son through this difficult time. 

The Son is both insular and expansive, with a dark warning. Though not strictly in the scene, characters will often stay on stage, trapped in their own mental wanderings. As much as the play emphasises listening, Longhurst’s direction also demonstrates the solitude we can all feel. Though a set-up familiar to those who have seen Arthur Miller’s All My Sons spoils the end, in its inevitability audiences cannot help but be moved by this nail-biting production and grieve as we watch the family suffer the indescribable. 

Early in the play in a violent fit of rage, Nicholas throws rubbish and furniture around the stage. The debris of his sanity remain for the majority of the play and, though simple, this visual metaphor reminds audiences that for someone suffering the pain is always there, cluttering their perception with numerous opportunities to trip and fall. It is for the rest of us to love, support and help make a safe pathway for those struggling.  


The Son is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 2nd November.

Photograph credit: Marc Brenner.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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