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Review: THE FEVER SYNDROME, Hampstead Theatre

Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre Roxana Silbert directs a big, psychologically chaotic, Miller-esque American family drama by Alexis Zegerman.

The Fever Syndrome

The Fever SyndromeRichard Myers has helped thousands of people achieve their dream of becoming parents. The IVF pioneer is now receiving a lifetime achievement award, and his own family have gathered around him to celebrate their patriarch.

It was never going to be a harmonious reunion; the joyous occasion swiftly turns into a dispute with a mean streak in Alexis Zegerman's new play.

Directed by the Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre Roxana Silbert, The Fever Syndrome is a big, psychologically chaotic, Miller-esque American family drama that, unfortunately, only scrapes the top of the issues it introduces.

Silbert places the action on a gorgeous stage designed like a gallery wall by Lizzie Clachan. Rich wooden frames intertwine and divide the vertical space into a handful of smaller squares that tower above the dining room. A round table gives the sense of equality, but the hierarchy of the Myerses is established straight away.

The first impression of the brownstone is one of wealth and class. But the wallpaper upstairs is peeling off and tearing, a visual symbol of the deeper, invisible cracks already present in the household.

With three marriages under his belt and a commitment to medical innovation, Richard Myers would be the weathered leader of his clan if only Parkinson's disease wasn't settling in so fast. Instead, with his deterioration already affecting his body and mind, his children contemplate different living arrangements and their hefty inheritance.

Dorothy and Thomas come head to head not only with Megan, their father's third wife and his full-time carer, but also with Anthony, Thomas's twin brother. With the sister's actively planning a coup against their stepmother and the twins' comparing the outcome of their life choices, tension builds quickly, but no big revelations are made.

With such themes as ethical science, Freudian trauma, and parental disappointment, one expects the piece to dig deep in the fabric of morality, privilege, and expectations. But Zegerman opts to stay on the surface and her dialogue remains rooted in stark naturalism and arch exchanges.

The audience learn very little about what they think or their individual stances on the subjects, but the playwright crafts a vibrant and dramatic family dynamic, nonetheless. It's to be said that the set-up is nothing especially original, but we can also argue that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and all that.

Robert Lindsay is raspy and waspish in his portrayal of Robert as he blurs the lines between his character's illness and his hot-headed bullish temperament. The doctor is a man who's used to being listened to dutifully, to be rarely contradicted or talked back to. "He was a colossus" Thomas (Alex Waldmann) says, distressed by his father's prospects.

Still, the artist of the group meekly seeks his approval and acceptance. Nervous about his next showcase and about taking his partner Phillip to meet the problematic bunch, his attempts at connecting are nothing but shut down by his ailing dad.

While Thomas is seen as weak and opaque by the others, his brother Anthony (Sam Marks) is the diamond of the family. The crypto-obsessed, tight-fitting-polo-shirt-and-khakis-wearing, West Coast man is unhealthily adored by Alexandra Gilbreath's Megan, who probably sees in him as younger, healthier version of her husband.

Lisa Dillon is Dorothy, a medical editor married to a disgraced scientist who's now a substitute teacher (Bo Poraj). Where she is as head-strong and decisive as her father, her husband is amiable and sheepish, docile against the wolves he's married into and ready to give Richard a standing ovation at any moment, desperate for his attention.

They share different opinions on how to care for their chronically ill child Lily (Nancy Allsop), hiding the cracks in their marriage behind brief and unenlightening disputes on ethics. Running at two hours and 45 minutes, we'd expect these discussions to take up much of the show, especially given all the opportunities Zegerman has. But they don't really.

The title of the show is explained as well as many of the reasons behind the unattached nature of Richard's adult children, but The Fever Syndrome isn't heated when it comes to ethical discourse. It's also not as profound in its exploration of the human psyche as it could be. It is, however, exceedingly long but surprisingly funny.

Dark humour and dry quips stir the pot and enliven the otherwise quite still play, as does Silbert with her direction. She moves the characters across the various frames giving them moments of intimacy and reflection, solidifying their human nature. It's a solid play, but we were expecting it to be more feverish in its debates.

The Fever Syndrome runs at Hampstead Theatre until 30 April.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

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