The Humans at Hampstead Theatre
Multi-Tony Award-winning writer Stephen Karam’s moving tale, The Humans, has its European premiere at West London’s Hampstead Theatre. Rooted in familial drama and with a script that contains some of the tautest lines in theatre of recent years, it is a play that is witty yet with something terrifying at its core.
26-year-year old Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) has recently moved into a Chinatown, New York, duplex apartment with her partner, Richard (Arian Moayed). When she is visited by her parents, Eric and Deidre Blake (Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell), grandmother Momo (Lauren Klein) and sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is a warm reunion, with plenty of food and drink consumed. Though disturbed by the arbitrary loud thudding of the upstairs neighbour, the family continue their celebrations without much hindrance – though on an unconscious level Fitz Patton’s sound design produces an innate fear, of something not feeling quite right.
What begins as a regular family gathering turns strangely sinister. Director Joe Mantello’s use of space works very well; both floors of the apartment can be observed at all times. Inherently, the production has an authentic, naturalistic feel, compelling the audience to watch, while shadows play on the walls – the result of Justin Townsend’s atmospheric lighting. The absence of music – apart from a rendition of John McDermott’s The Parting Glass – makes The Humans ever tenser.
Karam’s drama feels like a combination of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and fellow Dane Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. With the play’s subdued eeriness simmering underneath existential fears of loss, poverty, criticism and ill health, the dramatist succeeds in leaving his audience breathless and expecting the worst. As the production reaches its unforeseen climax, delving into the uncanny, Eric is left in the darkness. Emotions run high after the family secret is revealed and things take a darker turn, imbued with ghostly tones: kitchen pots tumble to the floor and light bulbs go out, leaving everything in total blackness.
The Humans sets the bar for how productions can be deeply stirring whilst simultaneously unnerving; the simplest movement of an elderly passer-by walking in the hallway is terrifying, and when Momo experiences what can only be described as a chilling dementia episode, it is reminiscent of recent horror films. Karam takes the humble story of a family reunion, and turns it on its head in a subtle and expert fashion. As the playwright puts it succinctly, “…it’s actually what is most familiar that has the potential to conjure the most dread”.
Photo: Marc Brenner
The Humans is at Hampstead Theatre from 30th August until 13th September 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for The Humans here: