Man and Boy, Duchess Theatre, London

The sins of the father
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The Independent Culture

Is it coincidence or a response to something in the Zeitgeist? At the moment, you'll notice that three of the most powerful productions in the West End focus on deeply troubled father-son relationships.

Is it coincidence or a response to something in the Zeitgeist? At the moment, you'll notice that three of the most powerful productions in the West End focus on deeply troubled father-son relationships.

In Schiller's Don Carlos at the Gielgud, the eponymous prince works himself into a froth trying to smash through his father's almost fanatical distaste for him. In Festen at the Lyric, a son throws a swanky 60th-birthday celebration into disarray with an accusation of sexual abuse. He wants to know why his father systematically subjected him to it. "Because it's all you were fit for," is the chilling answer.

Now, the creepiest case of all is Maria Aitken's intriguing revival of Man and Boy, Terence Rattigan's controversial 1963 play (which was not, at that time, hailed as the key work he thought it). The elements are roughly the same: dominant, overbearing patriarch, and sensitive, sidelined son who is torn between contempt and a desperate desire for love. The devastating twist here is that Gregor Antonescu, the wealthy Romanian financier, is prepared to pass off his son as his gay toyboy and to dangle him as a quid pro quo to the covertly homosexual chairman of American Electric (the deliciously discomfited but dead keen Colin Stinton).

The son has been eager to create a good impression for his father, whose imperiled empire hangs on this merger. But Gregor blithely neglects to tell the boy of the crucial detail. That's the degree to which, for power, he's willing to degrade the filial relationship.

Set in the estranged son's Greenwich Village apartment on a July night in 1934, this flawed but compelling drama offers a mighty, meaty role for a leading actor, and David Suchet is magnificent in it. With his dark, opulent voice and the measured private amusement of his seductive ploys, he mesmerically incarnates a man for whom other people are merely instruments. There are some amusing moments when, apparently conversing with his son (the excellent, painfully needy and beautiful Ben Silverstone) or to his financial heir-apparent (David Yelland) he seems to come round with a start, as if to say: "What, are you still here?" The silky stealth with which he plays on his son's affection while dressing him up in sexy Bohemian clothes leaves you feeling both soiled and unsettlingly impressed. This cannibal has a witty way with a napkin.

It's great that Rattigan steadfastly refuses to sentimentalise his monster (who, in some aspects, resembles Robert Maxwell) because of the abject poverty of the man's childhood. Instead, he presents him as someone who has chosen power rather than love (the good his work has brought about - roads in Romania, electricity in Hungary - was incidental to his real project). Suchet manages to convey both the darkly gleeful way that this leaves Gregor free to deploy a travesty of tragic feeling, and the empty tragic waste of it all.

The play creaks a bit and shows its age by ruling out the slightest possibility that there could be tremors of sexual attraction between a non-homosexual father and his straight son. But it is well worth seeing.

To 16 April (0870 890 1103)

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