Review: The Fever Syndrome, Hampstead Theatre ★★★☆☆

Robert Lindsay is far from his Anything Goes cruise ship, though the accent isn’t all to far removed, in Roxana Silbert’s production of Alexis Zegerman’s new play The Fever Syndrome.

We are in Professor Richard Myers’s (Lindsay) Japanese knotweed-infested Brownstone on the edge of Central Park, New York where he lives with his wife and carer, Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath). The property is sensationally reproduced on Hampstead Theatre’s stage by Lizzie Clachan in a compartmentalised design that resembles an open doll house or an arrangement of frames on a living room wall, while suggesting the Brownstone’s towering and imposing presence.

Myers’s family, his three adult children, their partners and his only grandchild, have descended on the house in advance of attend an awards ceremony where he will receive a lifetime award for his work as an IVF and PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) pioneer.

The cast of The Fever Syndrome. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The medical and the scientific play a central role here; there are three doctors in the family while Myers himself has Parkinson’s disease and there are worries he may be approaching the end stages of the disease. Meanwhile, his granddaughter Lily (Nancy Allsop) has the fever syndrome of the title – a rare genetic disease that causes fever and fits.

Medical ethics and politics are frequent topics of conversation amongst the bickering family of intellectuals, with Myers mainly raging against the GOP, although he doesn’t hold back on the Democrats either- it may cause him alarm to discover his prediction of a comeback for Sarah Palin could be prophetic.

Alexis Zegerman has cast her storytelling net wide in the family drama, unpicking the various relationships within the group; between Myers and his children, between the three siblings, between the siblings and their step-mother, between the siblings and their partners, and between Lilly and her parents. This is given an additional layer given that Myers has had three wives. His first marriage resulting in Dot (Lisa Dillon) his second resulting in twins Antony (Sam Marks) and Thomas (Alex Waldmann) and his final marriage providing a step-mother to all three.

Lisa Dillon and Bo Poraj (upper left), Sam Marks (bottom left) and Nancy Allsop (upper right) on Lizzie Clachan’s set. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

It’s a lot to untangle, even in the 2 hour 45 minute running time, and, although the character acting is largely fantastic, these relationship studies are loosely tied together by Zegerman. It results in a piece that feels unintentionally sprawling and disjointed. Yes, this is a disjointed family, but it feels loose in the wrong places.

The unrequited bond Thomas describes between himself and the older Dot seems unimaginable in the characterisation of the pair. Similarly the flirtation between Antony and his stepmother seems farfetched and unbelievable in the way the characters are portrayed – that is not that the potential romance is not well played by Marks and Gilbreath, they certainly give the impression of chemistry between the pair, it is simply that everything else that happens points in the opposite direction.

For many the attraction of this play will be Lindsay and he delivers as the domineering patriarch. He is at his best when Myers feels provoked – in those moments where he rages at politicians and the establishment he is undoubtedly a part of, and when he effortlessly picks apart family members and their ulterior motives. Lindsay is magnetic as he effortlessly destroys Dot’s husband Nate’s (played in perfect irritating fashion by Bo Poraj) research plans, revelling in his dejection. Zegerman may not quite have hit the mark in this sprawling drama but Lindsay doesn’t miss.

The Fever Syndrome is at Hampstead Theatre until 30 April