The Family Plays @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Lewis Lempereur-Palmer
Daisy Lewis
Harry Lloyd
Samantha Spiro
Jeremy Swift

directed by
Joe Hill-Gibbins
Radiant. Extraordinary. Beautiful. Lovely. Words like this pepper Joakim Pirinen’s The Good Family, the first of two short pieces in a double-bill of international works, from Sweden and Ukraine respectively, now playing at the Royal Court’s upstairs theatre.

The titular family in Pirinen’s play mother, father and their two teenage children are happy, very happy, and fond of telling it each other so. The most basic things give them pleasure; they want for nothing and are secure in each other’s love. They are enthusiastic, upbeat and unceasingly cheery. A state so rare, that its depiction on stage has a curious affect on the audience watching this play is an incredibly tense experience.

As the family have dinner and chat about their day, play a game of dice and discuss who will do the washing up, you find yourself nervously waiting for something to happen, something bad, something awful, to puncture this bubble of bliss. This unnerving quality underscores even the most banal and pleasant exchanges, you keep looking for cracks, for holes through which something rotten and poisonous could slip and contaminate their happy little world. A phone call, a birthday present, an unexpected announcement – everything becomes loaded with menace.

So while the play is obviously satirizing the way the world views Sweden, it has the additional effect of making you examine your own reactions to this portrait of contentment taken to extremes, and untainted by irony and cynicism.

The second play in the double bill, Natalia Vorozhibit’s The Khomenko Family Chronicles is rather different. In the first piece, the theatre’s bench seating had been arranged around the walls, so that the audience were included in all the Scandnavian sweetness; for Vorozhibit’s play the furniture has been removed and stacked at the back of the room, leaving the audience to sit on the few remaining benches or simply on the floor.

A wall at one end of the theatre is opened out to create a grim little hospital room. In this room, a child is lying on a metal bed attached to a chemotherapy drip. His parents come to visit him, bringing fruit juice and chicken soup. His mother, tottering on spike-heeled boots, is heavily pregnant, and his father swigs from a bottle of beer. After bickering a little, they use the visit to reminisce about how they first met and how their son, Lyosha, came to be conceived. Their stories include references to Chernobyl and September 11; these tragedies are twisted around, becoming mere background colour to their own personal narrative. They apparently make no connection to their son’s possibly terminal illness and the radioactive rain that fell on them, or the fact that a similarly bleak fate might await their unborn child.

All the performances are strong, but the one that made the greatest impact was Lewis Lempereur-Palmer as young Lyosha. His dreamlike concluding monologue, where he leaves his hospital bed and wanders amongst the audience, was the most striking moment in the play.

This is the shorter of the two pieces but neither play is very long and both are wrapped up in under an hour and fifteen minutes, complete with interval. Together they make a fascinating double bill – and a worthy addition to a season that has consistently delivered engaging and memorable work.

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