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Review of The Fever Syndrome at Hampstead Theatre

None of the characters in The Fever Syndrome come across as underwritten, in this examination of family life. A key event in the illustrious life of Professor Richard Myers (Robert Lindsay) is about to happen – he is to be presented with an award significant enough for all three of his grown-up children to be there for the ceremony. Only the professor’s third wife, Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath) is seriously expecting Anthony (Sam Marks) to turn up: the others recall is miscellaneous reasons over the years for not attending big family occasions. But he arrives, eventually, the audience having been gradually introduced to various family members in an accessible way. The play is far from laborious in supplying details as to who is who and what is what, and like a good detective novel, it all becomes clear in time.

The Fever Syndrome Ensemble © Ellie Kurttz.
The Fever Syndrome Ensemble © Ellie Kurttz.

The set is as multi-layered as the narrative, with scenes set in various rooms of a New York City townhouse. It works well, with the audience witnessing conversations behind the closed doors of various bedrooms. A stairlift is indicative of the professor’s relative physical frailty – and his mind is sharp when it wants to be. Every so often, he has thoughts and conversations that make others in the house wonder whether everything is okay. The younger generation, collectively, are so divergent one cannot help but think this is at least partly to raise dramatic tension, and goodness me, there’s plenty of it even before the interval.

Anthony prefers to be unattached, while Dot (Lisa Dillon), married to Nate (Bo Poraj), is mother to Lily (Nancy Allsop). Thomas (Alex Waldmann) has Phillip Tennyson (Jake Fairbrother) as his boyfriend. Charlotte Pourret Wythe as Young Dot does well to prove there is no such thing as a small part for an actor who makes the most out of what they are given. The sunny disposition most of them have to begin with was never going to last. This is something that could be foreseen from a mile off – a big family gathering, possibly the first one for some years, compared by the professor himself to a Thanksgiving dinner, was hardly going to consist of ‘happy families’ and nothing else. If anything, that wouldn’t exactly be riveting to watch on stage.

The attention to detail in the dialogue is convincing and impressive, with several scientific (and some not so scientific) discussions used as vehicles to deliver the professor’s opinions on various subjects, including the ‘GOP’ (‘Grand Old Party’ being an informal name for the Republican Party), the baseball team NY Mets, and how it was that the world’s first human birth after conception by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) happened in the UK rather than the US. Some frank and forthright discussions are delivered at a brisk pace, which maintains interest in what becomes a complex but never impenetrable set of subplots. The irony is not lost that the professor, whose contributions to medical science were substantial, has descendants who have medical bills so high that the family fortunes are a topic for conversation in what is supposed to be a celebratory gathering.

There’s humour in the proceedings, whether from the professor’s sharp tongue or from someone speaking their mind too quickly. The play doesn’t shy away from stereotypes – Lily is, almost inevitably, the teenage girl who is not nearly on dependent on lifesaving medication as she is on her mobile phone, and Nate is that highly-strung in-law who doesn’t think he’ll ever fit in with the Myers clan.

I suspect there will be those who would rather the script took on fewer themes and explored them in greater depth. It is difficult to pigeonhole the play into a family drama, situation comedy or intellectual debate – that works to the show’s advantage in a production that is as perceptive of modern times as it is reflective of first world problems.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Robert Lindsay stars as Prof. Richard Myers, the great IVF innovator, who is virtually a secular saint because of the thousands of babies he has created throughout his career. Now, his family gather to see him receive a lifetime achievement award.

This fractious group are more accustomed to debate than empathy, so it’s not long before the family home in the Upper West Side of Manhattan is once again alive with dispute: conflicting Thanksgiving memories, polarised opinions on investment banking, and how best to care for their ailing father. And crucially, who will inherit Richard’s wealth and Richard’s prestigious science institution?

The cast features Lisa Dillon (Cranford, BBC One; Hapgood, Hampstead Theatre), Jake Fairbrother (Skyfall, EON Productions; Hamlet, National Theatre), Alexandra Gilbreath (Not Going Out, BBC One; The Provoked Wife, Royal Shakespeare Company), Robert Lindsay (My Family, BBC One; Anything Goes, Barbican), Sam Marks (Doctor Who, BBC One; Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company), Bo Poraj (Miranda, BBC One, Raya, Hampstead Downstairs) and Alex Waldmann (The Mikvah Project, Orange Tree; Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Company) will perform in this thrilling portrait of a brilliantly dysfunctional family. They are joined by Nancy Allsop and Charlotte Pourret Wythe.

Director Roxana Silbert is joined by designer, Lizzie Clachan; lighting designer, Matt Haskins; sound designer, Max Pappenheim; movement director, Wayne Parsons, dialect, Stephen Kemble; casting director, Helena Palmer CDG, and assistant director, Segen Yosef.

Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London, NW3 3EU
Saturday 19 March – Saturday 23 April 2022

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