Bucking the recent trend of heart-warming twilight-years weepies, The Lyons is refreshingly bracing. The bedside of dying patriarch Ben is not a place for emotional healing, reconciliation or the celebration of a long, faithful union, but a vitriolic familial recrimination free-for-all; less Oprah, more Jeremy Kyle. However, a brutally caustic first half seems at odds with glimmers of emotional depth in the second, as playwright Nicky Silver reaches for an unearned resolution.
Curiously, the contrasting elements are decently delivered, suggesting there is potential here for a satisfying comedy-drama, but, in a dizzying two hours, both feel a tad lukewarm. Silver seems happy to mine easy laughs from shock-factor zingers and acerbically drawn stereotypes, but, despite some great moments of cartoonish farce, fails to up the ante sufficiently.
Nicholas Day's irascible patriarch blows through every obscenity within the first five minutes, and Rita Lyons's deliciously savage Jewish mother, while a gem of a part, begins at too high a level of hilarious awfulness. Their redemptive moments (a peculiar beyond-the-grave cameo and impassioned monologue respectively) aren't enough to counter all that has come before.
As a consequence, the flurry of barbs between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, and the outrageous lampooning of everything from mental illness and addiction to domestic violence and homophobia begin to grow monotonous; in a post-Ricky Gervais world, you need more precise targets or wittier, more astute insights to thoroughly engage. Perhaps sensing that, Silver undercuts some of the meanness with commentary on our need for human connection, but hasn't laid enough groundwork to support it.
Tom Ellis as the cringingly awkward gay son fares best in bridging the gap, delivering venomous taunts with a saintly air, but also demonstrating the damaged psyche and appalling vulnerability of a child born into this hellish clan. His altercation with a real-estate agent, played by a criminally underused Ben Aldridge, is the evening's most compelling, convincing and genuinely surprising scene. He also keeps his dubious exchange with Katy Secombe's no-nonsense, wisdom-dispensing nurse just this side of mawkish.
Charlotte Randle, who has the most wandering accent of the cast, gets more of a raw deal as the drama-queen alcoholic daughter who stumbles into last-minute enlightenment. Silver seems unsure about the extent to which he wishes us to root for or even remotely sympathise with these lonely, crippled souls, even as he hints at the responsibility of monstrously unfeeling parents. While all four reach for kinship, their family ties only bind them more tightly into a state of painful isolation.
Given the current debates over "silver divorce" and ACOD (Adult Children of Divorce), perhaps the growing sense that, in the case of the Lyons, a divided family may be a happy family is actually a zeitgeist-y statement, but it would be more satisfying to feel emotionally invested in the outcome.