Phil Ross returns to North London to report on the World Premiere of Alexis Zegerman’s The Fever Syndrome.
The first thing that strikes me this evening is that the Hampstead Theatre clearly specialises in cosy, intimate set design, on the grandest scale. In the dim half-light, before the figurative curtain goes up, the interior of a New York, brownstone townhouse stands tall, broad and box-like before us. Resplendent in neglect, exposed and open to the tiny details of distressed wallpaper and damp patches, is the Myers home. Rising to the very roof, filling the theatre, embracing the audience into the very bosom of the household and all the shabby secrets that reside there.
The heart of any family beats around the dinner table. And here the Myers family are no different to any other. But that’s where the similarity seems to stop. The story revolves around the clan gathering for an award ceremony in honour of Professor Richard Myers, (Robert Lindsay), and his lifetime’s pioneering work in the field of IVF. Richard, who has early-onset Parkinson’s Disease, and his long-suffering third wife Megan, (Alexandra Gilbreath), await the arrival of his three adult children at their Manhattan home.
First to arrive is his high achieving oldest, Dot (Lisa Dilllon) with her house-husband Nate (Bo Poraj) and their sickly pre-teen, daughter Lily (Nancy Allsop). They are soon followed by Thomas (Alex Waldmann), a successful artist who is accompanied by his ex-army, live-in lover Philip (Jake Fairbrother). Arriving sometime later, from California, is Thomas’ twin brother Anthony (Sam Marks), a high flying, silicon valley start-up type.
As patriarchal Richard descends to meet them seated upon the stairlift, contentiously installed by Anthony, the siblings must confront the inevitability of their father’s decline. Their anxieties simmer quickly to the surface, exacerbated by his shaking hands and the large bib draped around his neck, as dutiful Megan helps her ailing husband eat. Before long tensions are revealed, schisms are laid bare, and the talk of money and inheritance comes distastefully to the dinner table.
Breadwinner Dot, under pressure to pay for daughter Lily’s ongoing medication, unleashes a critical storm on Megan’s financial management and maintenance of the house. She and Thomas want to take control of future care plans for their father, while entrepreneurial Anthony is more defensive of their put-upon stepmother. Keen to escape house-holding duties, husband Nate yearns for a return to the scientific community at the Myers Institute, while his father in law is still chairman. But the deteriorating Richard and his sons think Nate’s work is a joke, and mock him mercilessly.
Investor Anthony is the apple of his daddy’s eye, and his adoring stepmother does too. Yes, Megan likes her handsome and supportive stepson a little too much. All the while Philip, Thomas’ blue collar boyfriend is on the receiving end of a variety of Richard and Megan’s occasionally antiquated views. And not forgetting poorly Lily, flexing her teenage angst muscles, with Dot her hard-working, but increasingly irate mother. There’s a lot to take in, and at times it’s hard to keep pace with Alexis Zegerman’s complex and intimate script. But Roxana Silbert’s fast-moving direction kept me on the edge of my seat, drawing me deeper into the body of the work.
The dialogue moves voyeuristically from room to room around the huge family home, as the audience engages with flawed, composite characters. Tensions build, as layers of intimacy are peeled away, and the scene is set for wider analogous conversations. As Waldmann suggests, the house could represent our immune system, with the antibody hosts fending off invaders. However, with a multitude of conversations, emanating outward from science versus tradition, we’re most definitely offered a microscope, with which to view the many ailments of American society.
It’s a prism full of juxtapose, like the Myers’ god-like intelligentsia and working class Philip. “We only had two books in our house when I was growing up; a bible and a road map”, he says earnestly. “But that didn’t make us bad people”. This is shortly followed by the Myers twins ‘trashing the books’ scene in a display of sibling solidarity.
The Fever Syndrome is rightly vaunted as Miller-esque. But for me at least, elements of Alan Ackbourne’s Norman Conquests come shining through like a slap up meal at Mrs Miggins Anglo-American Pie Shop. I’m sure I also caught a glimpse of Citizen Smith sitting at Richard’s dressing table. My one and only qualm revolves around the top and tail of Megan’s character. Her opening monologue was long. Revealing her core wound could have been much more succinct. While in the final scene, I felt her character arc suddenly dropped off the map. Discarding her didn’t quite sit quite right for me. That’s not a plot spoiler by the way. It’s purely a personal take, and really shouldn’t distract from the fact I genuinely loved The Fever Syndrome. I highly recommend snatching up a ticket, if any are left.
The Fever Syndrome runs until 30th April 2022 at the Hampstead Theatre, London. To book tickets visit
Production photography by Ellie Kurttz
Words by Phil Ross. More writing by Phil can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.