Metamorphosis at the Lyric, Hammersmith

Don't miss a chance to see the play of the decade says critic Liz Vercoe

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If anyone in your household has ever said poignantly: “he/she went upstairs a sweet little child and next day came down a teenager” you will get this play. Any teenager who has internally screamed “can these people really be related to me?” when faced with another parental ticking off, will also get this play.

Photo by Sam Rosewarne

In fact if you have lived at all in a world where difference of race, language, ability, health or even age group has blinded one set of people to their shared human bond with another group, yep, you’ll get this play.

Amazing really when it’s just five actors, one of whom performs for much of the time virtually upside down on the equivalent of a climbing wall.

This Metamorphosis has been adapted from the story of the same name by Franz Kafka, written in 1915. That story tends to be loosely described as “the one about the man who wakes up as a beetle”.

The curtain rises on two rooms one above the other. Below is all brown wood, timeless, solid and reassuring. The top room, however, while furnished with bed, chairs, pot plants and pictures, hangs dizzyingly perpendicular above the other.

In residence are the Samsa family, neat, tidy and desperate to avoid trouble. They run their world like clockwork at the expense of any real emotion. Mother Greta (actress Nina D ögg Filippusd óttir) is prone to hyperventilating but she holds her head high like a carved ballerina and flicks away imaginary dust. Cosy father Herman (Ingvar E Sigur đsson) is apparently content surrounded by order and retreats behind his crisp newspaper, while schoolgirl Lucy (Kelly Hunter) is sweet faced and keen to help her parents. The fourth member of the family, on whom it turns out they all depend in one way or another, is Lucy’s brother Gregor.

The cuckoo egg about to smash messily in the midst of their neat existence is the fact that he seems to have gone missing. As they talk and puzzle, the silhouette of, well, something, shifts behind the curtains in the upstairs room and then wriggles into the mattress of the bed.

The story that unfolds is totally tragic and the physical theatre required heart stopping. Initially when the family discover a new creature has taken up residence in Gregor’s room – and their reactions suggests they see something totally stomach turning – they try to be kind and civilised to their “son” and “brother”. Lucy in particular. But they cannot see human Gregor any more or even hear his words.

They see something that scuttles across walls and ceiling. And so do we. As Gregor, actor and co director Gisli Öm Gar đarsson defies gravity using random (brilliantly designed) foot and handholds while he pleads ineffectually with his family, initially for understanding, later for basic needs.

Unable to communicate with him, the family’s tolerance starts to fray and their personalities change. Lucy forgets to feed him. Forced to find work, dad Herman starts to revel in strutting around in the uniform of a security guard. And, in a truly heartbreaking scene, Greta braves her fear of what her son has become, only to unwittingly dehumanise him further by imposing her ignorant ideas of what he needs. The cast’s tenderly precise performances are supported throughout by the haunting music of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Co directed by David Farr, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, this is a totally enthralling 85 minutes and like no other. It’s as emotionally draining for the audience as it must be physically for the cast.

The conclusion is quite breathtaking – indeed it’s very hard to inhale and exhale when your heart is in your mouth.

Liz Vercoe

Metamorphosis' run has been extended until February 16.

For tickets, call the Box Office on 0871 22 117 29 or book online




January 25, 2013