“The Son” review: on losing control

Warning: This review contains light spoilers.

When it comes to mental illnesses, the youth are most at risk. In fact, nearly half of mental illnesses appear before age 14, with the rate of appearance increasing to 75% before age 24.¹ The Son tackles this topic head on.

A companion piece to The Father, Pangdemonium’s The Son, also written by French playwright Florian Zellar, is similarly about an illness in the family that cripples the entire family. While The Father is told from the perspective of a dementia patient, depression is an unspoken illness that lurks in The Son. Set in a nondescript European city, The Son’s titular character is 16-year-old Nicolas (Zachary Pang), a seemingly typical sulky, moody teenager. His divorced parents, Anne (Shona Benson) and Pierre (Adrian Pang), receives news – Nicolas has been not attending school for three months. Nicolas decides to move out of his mother’s place and move in with his father, his new partner Sofia (Sharda Harrison), and a new baby. Gradually, the adults’ attempts to deal with Nicolas’ dark moods reveal something deeply troubling. 

The Son moves at a steady pace in the first hour, displaying all the love, wealth and privilege Nicolas possesses. His mother worries about him and his father lavishes him with new clothes. His bourgeois family home is lush and clean. Yet, Nicolas’ behaviour becomes increasingly more troubling. For his debut stage performance, Zachary Pang’s portrayal of Nicolas is singularly empathic, a heartbreaking rendition of a tormented teenager’s struggle: he skips school not to meet girls, but to go for long walks. Adrian Pang, Zachary’s real-life father, is also moving in his performance as a proud and concerned, but exceptionally stubborn.

Zellar’s script is crisp, though his characterisations of Anne and Pierre could be read as some attempt to disperse some parental advice. They are loving parents but ultimately, astonishingly obtuse. Zellar’s writing occasionally ventures close to didactic, particularly in the script’s climatic dilemma, however, director Tracey Pang makes a pointed effort in steering The Son‘s focus into a play about mental health, over family drama. There is no mention of mental illness in The Son, and the audience does not see any acts of self-harm on stage, yet it remains central to the action. The Son shows that mental health has to be treated like any other illness, where you need doctors and medical support. Zellar’s adult characters are not “at fault” per se, as they are all trying their best to “help” Nicolas. However, they are grossly unequipped or trained to deal with these situations, as seen in The Son‘s harrowing conclusion. 

Curiously, there are several hints of overlapping timelines in The Son. While not as strong a narrative feature as seen with The Father, where objects onstage disappear to reflect a protagonist’s ailing memory, there are only small glimpses of Nicholas’s breakdowns in The Son that at times feels rather lacking and never fully commits to. In one outburst, Nicholas angrily pushes objects off a living room sideboard. The scattered mess is left neglected for a while, but it is eventually noticed by Sofia who cleans it up. This sequence remains unclear, perhaps meant to show an unexpected side of Nicholas or a subtle nod towards a woman’s work at home that goes unacknowledged, but this theme is never touched upon again or fully fleshed out.

Pangdemonium ventures into its usual strengths with a truly slick set. Set designer Petrina Dawn Tan paints a pretty picture featuring the stylish comforts of a wealthy home with plush sofas and modern art. With stage dividers and converging lines forming a neat optical illusion, Petrina aptly blurs the domestic scape with cold clinical settings. It is a marvel to witness the shifting set designs, a very economic and creative use of/within the stage confinements. In addition, the deliberate visual warp encapsulates what Nicholas experiences – exterior environments collide and distort as the internal struggle becomes all consuming and overwhelming.

Backed by nuanced performances from a robust cast, The Son spirals out from a family drama to a distressing tale about what not to do. Youth and children are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and sometimes, love is not enough.

This review is based on the performance on 23 February 2020.  The Son runs from 20 February – 7 March 2020 at Drama Centre Theatre.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

¹ Source: What is the state of mental health in Singapore?