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Sons of the Prophet at Hampstead Theatre

One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or a play by its title, but what does a show called Sons of the Prophet suggest to the theatregoing public? I thought it might be overly religious in content, or even about some sort of cult. As it is, Bill’s (Raad Rawi) personal faith is respected by the other characters (though the play has little to say about organised religion), with the comedy elements reserved instead for the likes of Gloria (Juliet Cowan), the eccentric employer to Bill’s older nephew Joseph (Irfan Shamji). It transpires her somewhat leftfield views and statements are at least partly attributable to a sustained bout of depression. The use of mental ill health to mask what are nonetheless inappropriate remarks seemed more than a little outdated to me.

Irfan Shamji plays Joseph in Sons of the Prophet. Credit Marc Brenner.
Irfan Shamji plays Joseph in Sons of the Prophet. Credit Marc Brenner.

The same goes for the lengthy and detailed explanations as to how the American healthcare system functions: Joseph is, quite understandably, concerned about medical bills just for diagnostics, let alone treatment. I wondered initially if the contextual descriptions might be taken out if the show were to be staged in America itself, only to discover it has already been performed in the States – why did they need to be told what they already know?

The naturalistic feel of the dialogue is both a blessing and a curse. It isn’t often that interruptions and talking over one another in the course of a conversation are pulled off successfully on stage. In one sense it’s glorious to see and hear people talking as they would reasonably be expected to in real life. It’s relatively uncommon in the theatre, however, for the simple reason that when two people speak at once, neither can be heard properly, and both points are therefore lost. But interestingly, it wasn’t that difficult to follow what was going on despite this.

Joseph’s younger brother Charles (Eric Sirakian) has a youthful vibrancy about him, which contrasts with Bill’s ailing health. The critical incident in the narrative has already happened: Joseph and Charles’ father (who, despite the show’s title, neither asserted he was a prophet nor had that designation given to him by others) did not survive an accident, the result of a prank that went very, very wrong. The prankster, ‘football’ player Vin (Raphael Akuwudike) makes a late entrance in what appears to be a form of restorative justice. (I say ‘football’ in inverted commas, as the play really means American football.)

A lot of hooks are in this play for people in the audience to latch on to – very many people will have suffered loss and bereavement in some way, or had someone they know receive a medical diagnosis, or worked in a toxic environment but find themselves unable by way of economic necessity to simply leave. So much is almost universally relatable, however, that it’s difficult not to feel wary of what the play is really trying to achieve. The play’s aims, alas, still elude me. The show’s ending is ambiguous and abrupt, an odd point at which to bring proceedings to a close.

Holly Atkins and Sue Wallace were hilarious as members of a school board, spiteful without realising it in the voicing of their innermost thoughts. Then there’s Timothy (Jack Holden), a journalist who, it turns out, has known Joseph since they were in high school together: his intrusiveness is unsurprising, given how some hacks behave, but is still uncomfortable viewing. The play is briskly paced but lacks a definitive overarching theme, instead coming across as rattling through a checklist: healthcare challenges, homosexual men in a conservative and religious family, a challenging jobs market – tick, tick, tick. The strength of the cast helped to maintain interest in a broad and unwieldy piece of theatre.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Every family’s got their stuff, right? The Douaihys have a habit of dying tragically. We’re like the Kennedys without the sex appeal.

A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE EUROPEAN PREMIERE
SONS OF THE PROPHET
BY STEPHEN KARAM
DIRECTED BY BIJAN SHEIBANI
3 DEC 2022 – 14 JAN 2023
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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