Review: ‘The Son’ is a beautifully constructed but deeply challenging watch

Raising money for Mind, the team behind The Son have crafted a complex expression of mental illness and troubled family dynamics

*CN: Discussion of difficult themes covered within the play, including but not limited to mental illness, self-harm, and suicide*

The homely set you’ll see on the stage when you enter the ADC to see The Son this week – complete with a worn sofa, familiar desk, and chest of drawers – belies the exceptionally challenging depiction of depression and troubled family dynamics that are to follow over the subsequent couple of hours. Taking the audience with it through a number of deeply moving moments of despair, hope, and frustration, this performance winds up being both devastatingly heart-wrenching and filled with countless difficult truths – most notably, and most troublingly, the fact that love and good intentions are sometimes not enough to save a life.

The set design, featuring Ollie Flowers as Nicholas (left) and Joe Harrington as his father, Pierre (right). Image credits: Ben Nicholson

The Son – a translation of French writer Florian Zeller’s 2018 play Le Fils – received rave reviews when it debuted on the London stage in early 2019, and is even currently in the process of being adapted into a film of the same name, and it’s not difficult to see why. Under Dylan Evans’ excellent direction here at the ADC, this is a show-stopping performance, which at times makes for deeply uncomfortable and unsettling viewing, and which will certainly be one of the best shows to hit the stage in Cambridge this term.

The storyline centres around an immensely difficult time in Nicholas’ – “The Son’s” – life following the divorce of his parents and his father’s subsequent remarriage, during which he struggles with acute depression, causing him to skip classes and struggle to find any energy at all. Attempting to find a solution to a problem which even he himself can’t understand, he moves in with his dad and his dad’s new wife Sofia, opening the doors to a whole new set of tricky family relations.

Ollie Flowers and Joe Harrington as Nicholas and Pierre respectively. Image credits: Ben Nicholson

The acting is fantastic throughout:  Ollie Flowers‘ depiction of “The Son” himself, Nicholas, is nothing short of excellent, and Joe Harrington‘s take on Nicholas’ dad, Pierre, is equally moving. The ever-developing dynamic between the two is so challenging to watch because of how realistic it is – even as Pierre makes blatant mistakes and struggles to know what to do, there’s never a sliver of doubt that he acted out of love, even if that love is marred by difficulty, darkness, and a lack of true understanding of his son’s condition.

Aliyah York’s Sofia enters the picture as a remarkably dislikeable new mother with her own hang-ups and problems, while Alessandra Rey’s warm but unsettled portrayal of Nicholas’ mother, Anne, is a dependable constant in the background: she embodies Anne’s own struggles – which are separate but not unrelated to Nicholas’ – without ever forcing them into the spotlight.

Aliyah York as Sofia, with Nicholas. Image credits: Ben Nicholson

This is representative of the play as a whole – if these characters are anything, they are realistic, and they are all deeply flawed. This also means none are intrinsically likeable, but it’s clear that they all problems we can empathise with, and while it might be exceptionally easy to categorise Pierre and Anne as bad parents who don’t understand mental illness at all, and who attempt all too frequently to project their own image of success onto their son, this might be an over-simplification. But then again, it might not.

This play asks some exceptionally difficult questions of its characters and of the audience, and these are questions which – for the most part – remain unanswered. It provides no easy explanation for the source of Nicholas’ depression, it provides no answers whatsoever for the upheaval caused by divorce, and it refuses to categories its characters and their problems. It also contains moments of happiness – dancing, music, good grades, and more – and whether these are true or simply illusions, it is a testament to both Zeller’s writing skill and Dylan Evans’ careful direction that no moment comes off cheesy, and no emotion is overwrought.

The Son. Image credits: Ben Nicholson

I cannot stress enough that The Son is not a show for everybody: pay careful attention to the content notes, and only attend if you feel able to. If you do, however, I can promise you that you will be rewarded with several hours of top quality acting and a complex, provocative storyline that will move you to your core – but if you choose not to, you can still donate to Mind, the charity the show is raising money for, at this link right here.


The Son is running at the ADC Theatre at 7.45pm from Tuesday 3rd until Saturday 7th May. You can purchase your tickets here.

Feature image credits: Ben Nicholson