Thursday, 26 October 2017

Theatre review: Of Kith and Kin

With his third play Chris Thompson continues to suggest he's a playwright whose next subject matter and style will always be a surprise. Of Kith and Kin introduces us to Daniel (James Lance) and Oliver (Joshua Silver,) married twice (once when it was Civil Partnership and again to upgrade to equal marriage) and now expecting a child. Priya (Chetna Pandya) was the one who first introduced them, and has already acted as a surrogate once before so she's a natural choice to carry their baby. The play opens with a baby shower just for the three of them, which gets crashed by Daniel's mother Lydia (Joanna Bacon.) It's clear from the start that Oliver can't stand her - at some point she offended his own mother although the dislike seems to stem from much earlier - and the atmosphere soon turns toxic.

In fact the argument gets so bad Daniel appears to be getting violent; one question the play leaves up to the audience to decide on is whether this aggression is behind what Priya does next.

When we next see them they're in legal arbitration, Priya having refused to give up their son. Even though genetically he's not hers, she has automatic mother's rights because she carried him, so it's down to Daniel and Oliver to convince a judge that they'll be better parents. I must admit to being a bit disappointed when the story turned into a custody battle, if only because that's the most obvious place for a story about surrogacy to go. But Thompson has actually given director Robert Hastie a hell of a lot to juggle in a story that's about more than it seems.

Of Kith and Kin opens as a pretty full-on comedy before getting dark quickly when Lydia's arrival exposes some of the cracks in the men's relationship; something that only happens more when the custody battle begins, and it starts to look like one of them was always a lot more serious about being a father than the other. Bacon gets to show off her rangeTM as she goes from overbearing mother to playing Priya's smoothly vicious lawyer, and in her single scene Donna Berlin is memorable as a fair but acidically funny judge.

There's a lot to unpack here as Thompson offers up more questions than answers; not just whether the first scene's violent talk was what changed Priya's mind, but how literally we should take it, given what we find out early on about the couple's sexual fantasies. The three scenes demand we see very different sides to the characters, and the cast are up to the challenge - Daniel and Oliver become so unlikeable by the end of the first scene that it's a credit to Lance and Silver that they keep us invested in them for what comes next. And the writer keeps the plot busy with surprises - one big lie revealed late on drew gasps from the audience.

It covers a lot of ground but what I ultimately thought Of Kith and Kin was about was the particular difficulties for gay couples in age-gap relationships: It's something they hadn't even acknowledged as being an issue before, but the fact that Daniel grew up never thinking raising a child with his partner would be a possibility means he views the opportunity very differently from Oliver. More generally, where Daniel thinks Oliver doesn't appreciate the rights he's grown up taking for granted, Oliver thinks Daniel oddly romanticises a past of cottaging and the AIDS crisis. Hard to pin down to a single theme, Of Kith and Kin certainly gives you plenty to mull over long after it's finished.

Of Kith and Kin by Chris Thompson is booking until the 25th of November at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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