“Some people are happy and some people are lonely, mean and sad. You strike me as the second kind”
Families – who’d have ‘em? Not Ben Lyons that’s for sure, as in his upscale New York private hospital room where his terminal cancer has reached crisis point, the cacophony that arises when his wife and two children are around his bed is enough to make anyone reach for the morphine button. Nicky Silver’s Broadway hit The Lyons, transferred here to the Menier Chocolate Factory, is one of the most vicious and spikiest dark comedies you’ll see all year – this isn’t so much a family united in tragedy as further shattered by it.
It’s occasionally cruel, it’s sometimes funny, more often than not it is cruelly funny – audacious in the jabs that these people make towards their ‘nearest and dearest’. Isla Blair’s Rita is sat by the bed planning how to redecorate the living room and the sibling rivalry between Charlotte Randle’s daughter Lisa, in an alcohol-recovery programme with a turbulent relationship history, and Tom Ellis’ son Curtis, shunned by his father due to his sexuality and with his own unique relationship problems, starts from the minute they arrive at the hospital, warring over the size of their respective gifts.
What Silver shows is how wrapped up people get in their own personal tragedies, how the wounds that cut one’s own flesh will always hurt more than someone else’s, even if theirs are fatal. So despite being the reason that they have all convened, Nicholas Day’s Ben is often just a spectator in the war of attrition between all four of them – dark secrets being dragged out, deeply held frustrations being aired, a brutal sense of scores being settled in a lifelong struggle. But for all the darkness, glimmers of light are allowed to shine through in a slightly more reflective second half.
The theatrical ancestry of the show feel directly drawn from plays like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf but what director Mark Brokaw brings is a televisual feel that also makes it cousins with something like Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. It’s not that the Lyons start to gain our sympathies but rather that once the atmosphere subsides a little, the characters, and the actors, are allowed to flourish more and suggest their depth.
Randle’s Lisa is transformed by the prospect of a simple kindness towards a man, Ellis’ Curtis has a late Damascene where he realises the change he needs to make to his life, even Blair’s sharp Rita offers something of a clue to her demeanour. It’s not enough to really create an emotional connection to the characters, but that would recast the play into more of a tragedy and shift the balance right off-kilter whereas right now, they are few things funnier playing in London. Not a play for those of a delicate disposition, but a bracing piece of blistering comic writing that deserves to be seen.