BWW Review: OF KITH AND KIN, Bush Theatre
Daniel (James Lance) and Oliver (Joshua Silver) are the picture of a happy gay marriage. Now, they're about to have their first baby with their closest friend Priya (Chetna Pandya) acting as a surrogate. Chris Thompson's Of Kith and Kin, which premiered at Crucible Sheffield last month, is a powerful and touching play that questions family values, parenthood, masculinity, and the subtle effects of abuse.
From the outside, Oliver and Daniel look like the most blissful couple. A TfL solicitor and a freelance party planner respectively, they went from civil partnership to marriage (both officiated by Priya) and seem now ready to have a child. But the idyllic scene comes to an end when Daniel's mother Lydia crashes their baby shower, bringing out the worst in both men and leading them to a violent and upsetting confrontation, which in turn (or by chance) causes Priya to go into labour.
Daniel's history of abuse and neglect comes to light, leading to doubts about his ability to be a parent, and Oliver's relative youth becomes a factor. Thompson investigates the meaning of family and how mental health is an intrinsic part, presenting characters who, even though they profess their love and say they're doing what's best for their partner, are ultimately selfish. They lie, blame, and emotionally blackmail each other, via seemingly loving care.
The cast's performances are well-pitched: their pauses and delivery often witty and sardonic, drawing laughs from the audience even when the subject is serious. Lance and Silver find ways to humanise their characters, presenting them as vulnerable and real in their struggles.
While Silver's Oliver is clearly reticent about becoming a father from the start, Lance's Daniel is anxious but ready. In an outstandingly poignant pre-interval scene, the latter bordering on an emotional breakdown is juxtaposed with Silver's silences, which lets the audience into what Lance's character can't see.
Silver is gut-wrenching in his performance. He defends himself and what he wants energetically but with the meticulous care his experience has taught him. He is witty and mordant, but unafraid of showing a more sensitive side when his feelings come into question. It's contrasted by Lance's facility with one-liners and his youthful attitude, which makes for a perfect balance to the other's stability and focus.
Interesting also is Thompson's subtle examination of how age difference has an impact on a shared life. "You have grown up entitled to things that I wasn't," accuses Daniel - he's 46 and was thrown out of the house by his father, while Oliver is 32 and seemingly unscarred by his family.
Thompson doesn't specify when the play is set exactly, so it could be any time right after same-sex adoption was legalised in the UK, or just last month. Either way, they would have grown up as gay men in extremely different circumstances, and while at the beginning this seems not to have any impact on their relationship, as the cracks form, their age gap weighs heavy.
The female cast is superb as well. Bacon and Pandya, accompanied by Donna Berlin as the judge, are a force throughout the show. In two roles, Bacon owns the stage: first as the mother resentful towards her disliked son-in-law, then exhibiting the wit and tricks of a skilled lawyer.
Robert Hastie's direction is sympathetic to the naturalness of Thompson's script, as well as giving it a crisp dynamic. James Perkins' set shows the stark difference between the well-off couple's furnishings and the cold, clinical tables of the courtroom.
The strength of the play lies in being able to touch on subjects with light but steady brushstrokes: Thompson challenges the normative structure of the family and compares the instinct to procreate to the educated decision to do so.
By putting marriage and friendship in the spotlight and analysing them through the lens of the characters' selfishness, a broader conversation on masculinity, same-sex relationships, adulthood, and responsibility is opened. Of Kith and Kin has become even more sophisticated in its post-Sheffield life, and it's a triumph in every aspect.
Photo credit: Helen Murray