Family life

Rating: 5

Humans

by Georgina Brown 

The late Burt Reynolds was refreshingly unpretentious about what acting was all about. ‘You just have to try and make it real,’ he said.

Acting has seldom seemed more real than in the stunning Broadway production of American playwright Stephen Karam's drama which gathers the Blake family together for a largely thankless Thanksgiving dinner. In the course of 90 gripping minutes, the play digs deep beneath the skins of the characters to expose the tensions, the tenderness and the ties which get infinitely tested but ultimately bind families together. It’s bitterly funny, bitingly sad and rings brutally true.

Lower middle-class mother and father, Erik and Deirdre, in their 60s, have driven over to the grimy, one- windowed duplex – no sunlight but lots of space – in Chinatown which their daughter, Brigid, has just moved into with her posher boyfriend Rich, still a student at 38. They’ve brought grandma Momo, who has dementia, and is in a wheelchair and a world of her own, ranting madly, occasionally throwing a terrifying tantrum, and yet, amazingly, joins in with saying grace. Their elder daughter Aimee, whose lesbian love affair has crashed, and career is crashing, has come too.

Devoutly Catholic Deirdre has bought brigid a statuette of the Virgin Mary and can’t help herself telling her that she should be married to Rich, any more than she can resist commenting that ‘the flat is like a cave and your bathroom doesn’t have a window’, as if it’s Brigid’s choice. It’s hard to snap out of behaving like a mom and it’s hard to stop behaving like a child. But one of the most moving moments is Deirdre's silent hurt when she overhears her daughters making fun of her efforts to help them.

Such is the naturalistic quality of Joe Mantello's direction and Karam's writing, with characters talking across one another, teasing, ignoring, attacking, sympathising, the cast behave like a real family, turning the audience more than ever into flies on the flat’s clammy walls. Indeed, we hear more than seems decent about Aimee's ulcerative colitis as she rushes in and out of the windowless loo with a noisy flush, apologising for the smell.

Which makes it sound like a conventional and old-fashioned family drama, bringing everyone together in order to pull them apart. But it’s more than that. It’s both grimly familiar and disturbingly unfamiliar. There’s a spookiness about the noises off, the thumping from upstairs, the deafening trash compactor, the lights blowing and throwing everyone into the dark, Erik's nightmares about a faceless woman. For, ultimately, this play is about what keeps ordinary people awake at night – existential terror, fear of poverty, illness, losing someone dear – and what keeps people going: other people’s love.

Until 13 October at the Hampstead Theatre in London, NW3: 020-7722 9301, www.hampstead-theatre.com

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