I sort of want The Humans to be bad. The last time I dragged Olly to a play, it was dismal. This dismal. This time Olly’s chosen the play, and a small, masochistic part of me thinks it’d restore the balance between us if this one’s even a fraction as bad.
Not having read enough about The Humans in advance to know about the four Tony awards (or the Broadway acclaim, or the bit where the NY Times called it “the Best Play of the Year”), I do just enough internet surfing to know that it’s about a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving celebrations, and feel optimistic. It takes an improbably deft touch, nuanced direction, charismatic script and cast, to make 90 interval-free minutes of the sort of family irritations most of us can get at home for free sound like good watching.
Yet when I Google a bit more on the tube over to Hampstead Theatre I come up with dishearteningly high levels of praise. Words like ‘gripping’ and ‘suspenseful’ are thrown around, along with some others that don’t seem likely to coexist all within the borders of a one-act family drama: dark, daring, bitingly funny, gentle, bitter-sweet, political, personal.
And The Humans is, unfortunately, all of those things. As well as a bit heartbreaking, uncomfortably recognisable, and compelling from start to finish.
Sarah Steele, as Brigid, is as magnetic on stage as she is on screen (holding her own among the fiercely strong cast of The Good Fight, for one). That and her character’s bustling energy make Brigid look like the protagonist, to start with. Her new home, her relationship, her Thanksgiving lunch, all under inspection by her family. But we’re not far into the play when it becomes clear each of the Blakes – Brigid’s sister, father, mother, grandmother – and her boyfriend are each equally central, and each come to this lunch bearing bruises as real, affection as real, troubles as heavy as hers.
This isn’t a charting of the big, brutal cruelty you might find emerging in the booze-soaked haze of a Tennessee Williams play. Most of the tragedies here are quiet, domestic and devastating. Most of the hurts the characters are struggling with are ones we’ve felt ourselves – most we’ve inflicted ourselves. Deirdre overhearing her daughters mocking her faith, when her faith is the only thing she has left to hold onto. Eric, looking back on a life he has reason to fear is ruined, and gripping ever tighter to the family he fears he’ll lose as well.
We join this table of people who all want, badly, to be good to each other, and are all fucking it up in some way. It’s a difficult thing to do, watching family wound each other in quiet, unintentional ways that aren’t less painful for being so. It’s a ridiculous, improbable feat for this play to knit that tangle of love and sadness and desperation together in a way that leaves you feeling sympathy for every person on stage.And it’s so good that I don’t mind being mired deeper in Olly’s theatre debt than ever.
The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, NW3 3EU until 12 October 2018. Tickets from £10, with a returns queue every day at the Box Office. For more information and to purchase tickets please visit the website.