The Fever Syndrome review: Robert Lindsay brings unexpected fragility to an often confusing play

Alexis Zegerman’s family dramedy is tonally muddled, but visually delightful

Isobel Lewis
Tuesday 05 April 2022 16:36 BST
Robert Lindsay as Dr Richard Myers (centre) and the cast of ‘The Fever Syndrome’
Robert Lindsay as Dr Richard Myers (centre) and the cast of ‘The Fever Syndrome’ (Ellie Kurttz)

There’s a lot going on in The Fever Syndrome. Alexis Zegerman’s play opens on the eve of a family reunion to celebrate the achievements of Dr Richard Myers (Robert Lindsay), a titan in the field of IVF who has Parkinson’s. The house creaks with unresolved tensions. His daughter Dot (Lisa Dillon) is exhausted from looking after her pre-teen daughter Lily (Nancy Allsop), who suffers from a rare condition where she gets extreme fevers. Dot’s half-brother Thomas (Alex Waldmann) has arrived home with his new boyfriend, while his golden-boy twin Anthony arrives halfway through the party, spouting off about cryptocurrency. The kids suspect that Richard’s third wife Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath) is a flirtatious gold digger. “This is very Edward Albee,” Thomas says. No kidding.

If it all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Thankfully, Lindsay is a more than capable anchor. From him, director Roxana Silbert cajoles a performance of unexpected fragility, pathos puncturing the fearsome gravitas. He may struggle to eat unassisted, but Richard still intimidates his family and can shut them down with a pithy comment. This is a man as sardonic as he is erudite. “I dropped a few pounds,” he tells Thomas. “The shake – it burns calories. The neurological disease diet.” They laugh at the dark humour; as does the audience.

Watching Richard’s slow deterioration, his lively mind entombed in a body no longer willing, is particularly gruelling. It’s distinctly at odds with the script, which is jaunty and garrulous; not too dissimilar tonally, in fact, to BBC’s bewildering popular sitcom My Family. When the whole family gathers, chaos ensues; conversation ricochets back and forth, rat-a-tat-tat. No one can keep up.

As the family splits off into different rooms, that flurry of chatter flips to another extreme, where clearly marked conversations are separated by brief jazz interludes. Disjointed though these scenes are, they do highlight the other star of the show: Lizzie Clachan’s set. Meticulously detailed and overflowing with family trinkets, it’s presented as a cross-section of a house, where oddly shaped rooms slot together like Tetris pieces. It’s a home that was once grand but, much like Richard’s health, is now in steep decline. All the rooms have slightly different, slightly dated wallpaper, with strips torn away and the yellowing marks where posters once were clear. When Thomas’s partner Phillip (Jake Fairbrother) asks him, “Why’s everything so compartmentalised for you?”, that compartmentalisation is literally laid out before us.

Lizzie Clachan’s inspired set design
Lizzie Clachan’s inspired set design (Ellie Kurttz)

The jokes are as obvious as they are on the nose; nuance is not in this script’s vocabulary. Thomas’s line that his siblings have “reached Shakespearean levels of power play” is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge too far. If your audience is nervously laughing as a 12-year-old girl graphically fits on stage, then something’s gone awry. Sure, levity can spring from darkness, but there’s a time and a place.

‘The Fever Syndrome’ runs at Hampstead Theatre until 30 April

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