SONS OF THE PROPHET
by Stephen Karam
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Hampstead Theatre – until 14 January 2023
Suffering as the basis for explosive comedy appears to be something of a specialty for acclaimed American dramatist Stephen Karam. Back at Hampstead Theatre where his Pulitzer and Tony winning The Humans was seen before the pandemic, Karam has another gem, which actually predates his better known play having been seen at off-Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre in 2011, with this touching, bracingly funny examination of a young man’s life in freefall as his body collapses on him, his dysfunctional family turn on each other after a bereavement, and his crazy boss threatens to withhold approval for his medical care if he doesn’t cooperate on a book cannibalising his father’s story.
Sons Of The Prophet is a wonderfully quirky paean to human resilience, fleshed out with richly drawn characters and dialogue of immense eccentricity and comic truth.
Joseph (in a superb central performance by Irfan Shamji) has a hell of a lot to deal with. But neither Karam’s writing nor Shamji’s performance allow him much more than a hint of self pity. When he does break down, in an exquisitely drawn final scene as he opens up to a former primary school teacher -a luminous Sue Wallace- who he unexpectedly encounters at a physical therapy class, it’s genuinely affecting. The absence of mawkishness and the constant presence of sheer human weirdness as we endure the allegedly unendurable make this a play to savour.
More often than not, Joseph is necessarily combative whether it’s with his needy but feisty younger brother (Eric Sirakian, just fabulous), triumphantly unreconstructed Uncle Bill who’s both protective of the family’s Lebanese heritage but right on the mark with modern American entitlement (Raad Rawi delivering a masterclass in magnificent crankiness) or his crassly insensitive boss Gloria, determined to inveigle her way into his family by whatever means necessary. Meanwhile, as a long time athlete, his body is breaking down on him. Your heart bleeds for him, but he is no victim.
As for ghastly Gloria, that aforementioned boss, she’s a Manhattan monster and a terrific comic creation. Pill-popping, mendacious, manipulative, the kind of person that plays the victim to get whatever she wants, she’s awful but she revivifies an already salty, tangy script whenever she’s on stage. Dreadful she may be, but she is theatrical dynamite and Juliet Cowan plays her, brilliantly, with a combination of steel and honey that convinces and appals in equal measure. She’s a victim and a predator, and if Shamji, Sirakian and Rawi weren’t so damn fine, she’d walk away with this entire show.
That said, there is brilliant support from Jack Holden as the unerringly privileged journalist Joseph has a fling with and Holly Atkins in a variety of roles, ranging from disaffected medical professional to a terminally unimpressed board member announcing the next stage in the legal case between Joseph’s family and the young man (Raphael Akuwudike, perfection) who accidentally killed their father.
It’s strange perhaps that something this brutal can be so life-enhancing, but that’s what Karam has given us: an enormously loveable play with a core of implacable steel. Strongly recommended.