Sons of the Prophet – Hampstead Theatre, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer: Stephen Karam

Director: Bijan Sheibani

This is a play full of lots of stuff: post-industrial depression in Pennsylvania; growing up gay in post-industrial Pennsylvania; growing up with Lebanese ancestry in post-industrial Pennsylvania; most of all, being sick in the USA. And being sad. The world is full of well-intentioned people who make Joseph’s life hellish, and when they find he’s a distant relative of Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, they offer him ancestral homilies to comfort him. They do not comfort him.

All of these balls are kept in the air by a cast that is always talking over each other and interrupting anything thoughtful or felt. Everything is overheard by someone. Everyone feels entitled to an opinion. The dialogue races, there is a struggle to comprehend, and it’s very, very funny. A stunning ensemble of actors led by Irfan Shamji play off, around, and on top of each other, manage intricate scene changes with smoothly choreographed brilliance, and bathe in the lush precision of Jack Knowles’ inch-perfect lighting. Bijan Sheibani directs a very impressive production that brings home Stephen Karam’s complex script, and it’s a joy to watch.

More important, however, is what the play has to say. Joseph used to be a marathon runner, but his knees have given up, and he is now a whole surgery full of symptoms that don’t add up to a diagnosis but cost eye-watering amounts to detect. He keeps his job with his self-absorbed, scatty and grotesquely exploitative employer (wonderfully presented by Juliet Cowan) because he needs to keep his medical insurance. His father has just died, so he also needs to look after his younger brother and his irascible uncle Bill, and fend off the advances of a local newshound. Lots of balls to juggle, made even more difficult by the fact that he fancies the newshound.

Stephen Karam extensively mines his autobiography about Lebanese ancestry and growing up gay in the Maronite Christian faith in Scranton Pennsylvania. Scranton is a city built on heavy industries that have all closed and fled the area, leaving the scars of extraction and no jobs. Joseph’s pain and loss is the focus of the play, but there is considerable sympathy extended to the people with whom he comes into contact, people who don’t listen, who don’t pay attention, who are bent on taking from him, but who all have their own problems and needs. It is a delicately drawn and well-balanced piece, making its points by fine writing and excellent playing.

Sons of the Prophet was first produced in 2011, but the concerns it raises are all still current and pressing. This is a timely and prescient European premiere.

Runs until 14 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Racy, Relentless, Relevant

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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