If you are at all familiar with Jewish bickering and the quick firing of pointed one-liners than The Lyons, now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, will not be unfamiliar territory. Mixing the humour of Neil Simon and the acerbic repartee of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, the American playwright, Nicky Silver, brings a magnifying glass to this New York dysfunctional family.
While patriarch Ben Lyons lies in his hospital bed, dying of cancer, his wife of 40 years, Rita, is trying to decide between icy blue and Marrakesh earth tones to redecorate their living room. Ben Lyons is not the type to approach death peacefully. He’s an angry, swearing, bile infected man who happens to like his living room. But for his wife, “The chairs are the colour of disgust and the carpet is matted with resignation”. You wonder if she is not referring to her marriage and not the interior decoration.
Two grown-up children are added to this stewing pot of resentment and arrive bearing competing flowerpots and many unresolved issues. When informed of their father’s imminent death, neither sibling is capable of any affection towards him. Lisa, a recovering alcoholic, formerly married to a physically abusive man, is in denial about her life while her brother Curtis, a gay short-story writer, has an imaginary boyfriend, lives off an allowance from his mum and is a bit of a pervert stalking his neighbour, Brian. It quickly becomes obvious that they are both incapable of having healthy relationships. They argue, bicker and betray each other’s secrets giving us a full dose of the hatred within that small family. And of course, they also heap blame onto their parents for destroying them.
The middle-class Lyons’ clan doesn’t do sensitivity. When Ben admits to his fears about the prospect of going to hell, Rita snaps back “Jews don’t believe in hell. And who are you to get into Hell? What did you ever do?” Rita makes it abundantly clear that she has never loved her husband and won’t hold his hand as he departs from this world.
Yes, the first act is funny in that sit-com style so familiar to TV audiences. The second act, more serious, takes us to an empty apartment where Curtis has a disturbing encounter with real estate agent Brian. The third act brings us back to the hospital room where it is now Curtis who is being cared for by the not too sympathetic nurse of the first act (Katy Secombe).
Mark Brokaw, who directed the US Broadway run last year, directs the English cast with assurance. Rita, played to perfection by a very funny Isla Blair (Steel Magnolia, The History Boys), embodies the suffocating belittling Jewish mum who can’t help but make hurtful remarks to her children. And when the mask slips, Ms Blair reveals the vulnerable, frightened but fighting widow extremely well. Tom Ellis (EastEnders, Miranda) is fantastic as the intellectual writer. He assumes the mannerisms of Curtis’ awkward, snobbish and gay personality to perfection. Charlotte Randle (The King’s Speech, Public Enemy) is very credible as the damaged sister and unstable daughter. While Nicholas Day (The History Boys, many with RSC) gives an assured performance as the irascible father and husband. The set, well designed by Jonathan Fensom, is sparse and cold, just like the Lyons.
But ultimately, what is Silver trying to tell us? Is he taking aim at the nuclear family and our romantic visions of what it should be? For Americans, who prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas because you only have to spend 3 days with your family, is he suggesting that you should ditch the blood relatives who only bring aggravation? With Rita’s third act speech about freedom, sex and having fun, Silver seems to suggest that we should eschew our family chains and escape to Aruba to feed our fantasies. And when Curtis’ reversal finally happens, we do feel that her departure might actually allow her children to spread their wings.