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The Fever Syndrome (Hampstead Theatre)

The Fever Syndrome (Hampstead Theatre, until April 30th 2022)

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Dysfunctional families have been a staple on stage and screen from Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy Oresteia to TV soap operas and The Simpsons.

Alexis Zegerman’s new drama The Fever Syndrome, receiving its world premiere at Hampstead Theatre, would even make King Lear and his daughters blush. But the fractious family feuding here is no Shakespearean tragedy – it’s often more like an overlong episode of Jerry Springer with no “final thought” to bring everything together.

Not only is a world-renowned IVF innovator, just about to be feted with a lifetime achievement award, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and needing long-term treatment which the family can’t agree about, but bitter and hotly disputed memories and opinions are coming to the fore. And then there’s the small matter of inheritance.

All this sounds as though it could venture into Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or even Albert Square territory, but Zegerman packs too many themes into the histrionic drama and we are left with an avalanche of ideas that overwhelm the plot.

The astute writer, whose Holy Sh!t was packed with wry and comic observation and some well-aimed punches at middle class British hypocrisy focuses on a very different all-American family in this new piece – yet sim

All credit to director Roxana Silbert and the first class company for unpicking the various elements to give some sense to the constantly shifting sands of the drama in which the characters and plot strands bounce off each other like a demented pinball machine.

It’s an interesting decision to set a play which concentrates so much on science in a claustrophobic brownstone house in Upper West Side, Manhattan, a neighbourhood famous for its artistic and cultural way of life and wide-open spaces. Like so much of the play there’s dramatic potential here that is never fully realised.

That house set is immaculately designed by Lizzie Clachlan, a tired living space overlooked by a series of worn-out picture-framed cramped rooms like a crumbling dolls’ house. Matt Haskins’ lighting gives a haunting and dangerous quality, shining light on the hidden.

At the heart of the play is Robert Lindsay’s magnificent domineering grumpy patriarch Professor Richard Myers, the test tube pioneer who went beyond simple IVF treatment and tried to create perfect children without flaw or medical imperfection. He has suffered as views on the process have veered between celebrated scientific progress to vilification for producing designer babies.

As he confronts the reality of his own mortality, visited occasionally by the “ghost” of his daughter as a young girl (an assured Charlotte Pourret Wythe), he faces the fact that despite the thousands of successful births as a result of his work – photos of many of the babies he has produced are pinned on the walls – he has failed as a father. The full impact of this, which is surely one of the key themes of the play, is revealed in a couple of almost blink and you’ll miss them lines in the final act and the biggest question in context is never really answered.

Lindsay avoids a melodramatic chewing of the scenery, capturing a more nuanced descent from influence to impotence, a colossus brought low by his own flaws.

Alexandra Gilbreath is impressive as his third wife, Megan, quietly defiant, wearily loyal, and desperately seeking escape as she flirts with her stepson, entrepreneur Anthony (a powerful and seductive Sam Marks), confident but dodgy, holding the future of all in his hands.

Then there’s the excellent Lisa Dillon and Bo Poraj as Myers’ daughter, Dot, and son-in-law, Nate, who are polar opposites – the one a medical editor in the science field who sees and thinks in black and white, the other a disgraced scientist constantly attempting to find recognition and respect. In another of the play’s dramatic contradictions they are the parents of a headstrong teenager (brilliantly played by Nancy Allsop) who suffers from a rare genetic medical condition.

As the final family member, Alex Waldmann as Anthony’s twin brother Thomas is left to represent the artistic counterpart to the scientific and ethical arguments. His gay successful artist is likeable and appealing and as his boyfriend, ex-marine and recovering drug addict Philip, Jake Fairbrother sashays his way clear of being the predictable partner who sees through the central family’s unstable lives.

With so many themes thrown in it’s disappointing that so little is explored beyond the superficial. Even with its quality direction and cast The Fever Syndrome raises the temperature too infrequently and is seldom feverish enough.

David Guest

Images: Ellie Kurttz

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