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Theatre review: Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam

23 December 2022

Susan Gray reviews a play about family life

Marc brenner

Jack Holden as Timothy and Irfan Shamji as Joseph in Sons of the Prophet

Jack Holden as Timothy and Irfan Shamji as Joseph in Sons of the Prophet

THE curtain does not rise on Sons of the Prophet: it crumples in a ball to reveal Joseph Douaihy navigating the aftermath of his father’s car crash and his own chronic pain. As his arm extends and recoils to ease nerve damage, his boss, Gloria, bustles into their drab office, making artless enquiries about Joseph’s Lebanese Maronite family. “I didn’t fall from grace, I tore my meniscus.”

Gloria hopes that a memoir on the Douaihys’ shared lineage with Khalil Gibran will revive her “sidelined” publishing business. Joseph’s health insurance hinges on pleasing his employer. Irfan Shamji’s puzzled, wounded performance makes a sharp comic pairing with Juliet Cowan’s bubbling insensitivity. As a stalwart of the innovative television comedies Back to Life and Am I Being Unreasonable?, Cowan brings a bleak comic realism.

Bereavement, undiagnosable pain, money woes, and later-life immobility do not sound like a recipe for comedy, but Stephen Karam draws on his own Maronite heritage for a witty picture of a gay Christian man in rural Pennsylvania, at a life crossroads. Deprived first of his athletic career, and then of his father, Joseph is rebuilding his identity, piece by agonising piece. Alongside him are his wisecracking younger brother Charles (Eric Sirakian) and don’t-forget-your-roots Uncle Bill. Increasingly frail, Bill is devoted to St Rafqa and her stoicism in suffering, which, she believed, immersed her in Christ’s Passion — or, as Charles summarises his live-in uncle’s faith, “He’s doing the Sorrowful Mysteries now. I can’t stand it.”

The drama’s mainspring is the real story of a high-school football player, whose placing of a deer mascot on a road caused a car accident. But the judge delayed his juvenile-detention sentence until the football season ended. Joseph and Charles are keen that Vin (Raphael Akuwudike), who sited the fake deer that off-roaded their father, should not have a blighted future through one rash act. Irascible Uncle Bill (Raad Rawi) sees Vin’s lethal thoughtlessness as one in a long line of callous acts aimed at Maronites. Samal Blak’s design envelopes the auditorium for Vin’s hearing, transforming the audience into armchair judges, as witnesses enter from the aisles.

Faith is the extra dimension in Sons of the Prophet, underscoring approaches to forgiveness and self -forgiveness, and expectations — realistic or otherwise — of the body. In a physical-therapy session closing scene, Charles tells a former kindergarten teacher who is also attending the session, “I miss having my dad’s faith around even though I don’t subscribe to it. I miss him.” And then there’s a new perspective from his earliest teacher on distinguishing between unavoidable and self-imposed limitations: “You can’t stand in your pain too long. It’s like quicksand: you’ll sink, never get past it.”


At the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3, until 14 January. Phone 020 7722 9301. www.hampsteadtheatre.com

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