Review by Daz Gale
Hampstead Theatre has always been a treasure trove of a theatre with its continued mission to champion new writing, so it was particularly heart-breaking when they announced they will need to change direction following a 100% cut in its Arts Council grant. While the future of this beautiful theatre may be worryingly uncertain, for now they are continuing to do what they do best by bringing us the European premiere of Sons Of The Prophet.
Written by Stephen Karam, Sons Of The Prophet is set in rural Pennsylvania and tells the story of two brothers, Joseph and Charles Douaihy, as they try to navigate the never-ending tragedies that seem to follow their family. The shows title is a reference to them being direct descendants of Khalil Gibran, and their conflicting attitudes to that legacy.
A deceptively simplistic set design by Samal Blak constantly reinvents itself with clever transformations, at one point managing to convey the Douaihy brothers entire house across multiple levels. Fantastic direction from Bijan Sheibani means Sons Of A Prophet is always interesting to watch with an inspired use of stage – particularly towards the shows close when a great chunk of the action takes place in and around the audience. This is brilliant in the way it manages to break down the wall between cast and audience and create a more intimate setting in a play that demands you to be invested in the characters for any hope of getting the payoff this writing deserves. Lighting design from Jack Knowles and sound design from Giles Thomas makes this an effortlessly well-rounded production.
The production is led by Irfan Shamji as Joseph who spends the vast majority of the 105 minute one act play in the spotlight, interacting with all of the other characters. His initial dismissive and monotone interaction with his boss leads to a more nuanced performance as the character unravels as he features one setback after another. Irfan is truly captivating in the role, never overplaying it and leading to a beautifully believable portrayal.
The second Douaihy brother, Charles, is played by Eric Sirakian. The polar opposite of Joseph, Charles can be excitable and full of life though over the top and dramatic at times. Eric conveys this flawlessly, adding details to a character you can’t help but fall in love with and share his passion for life, even when things continue to go wrong. A largely comedic turn, he gets some of the best one-liners of the play with an absolutely flawless delivery. Raad Rawi plays a character you love to hate as their offensively politically incorrect uncle Bill, making the audience cringe with his dialogue but delighting with his brash portrayal of a character some of us might recognise from our own families in the past.
Juliet Cowan is a standout in the cast as Joseph’s boss Gloria. While her scenes are played for laugh, a dark depression looms over her character which makes the laughter feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she plays it admirably, simultaneously piquing your interest in her life while making you laugh at her unique delivery. After wowing audiences in Cruise earlier this year, Jack Holden plays Timothy in a much smaller part (which a certain line in the script testifies to). Though his time on stage is relatively fleeting, he proves once again what a remarkable performer he is, charming the pants off his fellow cast members.
The true star of the show, however, is the writing. Stephen Karam’s dialogue manages to carefully strike the balance of naturalistic conversation and ridiculous, laugh out loud moments. A sense of believability lends itself well to the extremities of the themes, creating a show that instantly resonates. While the themes at hand are often dark and depressing, they are played out in a light-hearted way – sometimes it may feel odd laughing at such horrific moments but it is very much the intent of this tragicomedy. It’s the way Sons Of The Prophet demands you laugh in the face of tragedy that is key to its success, with consistently witty writing and some instantly memorable one-liners.
At its heart, Sons Of The Prophet speaks of the difficulty of living up to an impossible legacy that is passed down through the generations. If we are to compare that to Hampstead Theatre and their own legacy for bringing us new and exciting work, Sons Of The Prophet is a truly inspired addition, having no trouble joining the phenomenal works that have played here before it. It is a testament to why new writing is so important and why theatres like Hampstead Theatre should be given the support they deserve.
It’s been a great year for plays, both at this particular theatre and in the West End in general – Sons Of The Prophet has just snuck in there to give us one more great play before the year is out. With fantastic writing and a glorious cast, Sons Of The Prophet is an intelligent, thoughtful and hilarious piece of theatre that should be enjoyed for generations to come.
Sons Of The Prophet plays at Hampstead Theatre until 14th January 2023. Tickets from hampsteadtheatre.com
Photos by Marc Brenner