A man dying of cancer may not seem the most appropriate choice of subject for a comedy. That, however, is precisely what Nicky Silver, an American playwright surprisingly little known in Britain, has gone with, and he makes it work well. The Lyons is undoubtedly a black comedy, and the people we see are hideous, disloyal and selfish, but the real amazement is that, given all of this, the end product remains well within the boundaries of good taste.
The plot focuses on the days surrounding the death of Ben Lyons. At the start he lies in a hospital bed, ‘tended’ by wife Rita and visited by children, Lisa and Curtis. Even at this most sombre time, the family quartet do nothing but argue, trade insults and generally tell each other what a disappointment they are to their faces. Much of the humour derives from the Monty Python technique of seeing people remain calm in situations that really demand more of a reaction. For example, Rita sits at Ben’s bedside with a catalogue considering how she will refurnish the sitting room before nonchalantly commenting that the thought he is dying of cancer has put Ben in a frightfully terrible mood.
In between their bickering the pair separately agonise over how they loved one another, and about the fact that they can’t recall the precise moment when their hatred for their opposite started. They both accept that they need each other, however, commenting that ‘even contempt is a connection’. In turn, the children blame their parents and traumatic childhoods for everything that has gone wrong in their own lives since.
Isla Blair is a superbly ghastly Rita and Nicholas Day an excellently irascible Ben, while Tom Ellis and Charlotte Randle stand out as the two neurotic children. Across the evening, not all of the characterisation feels convincing, as it seems as if certain traits and mood swings have been introduced largely for their comic and dramatic appeal. By the same token, however, The Lyons does prevail as a superb piece of comedy drama.
Until 16 November at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU with start times of 3.30pm and 8pm. Tickets (£27.50-£39): 020 7378 1713 or visit the Menier website. Londonist received a complimentary ticket from Arthur Leone PR.