Festen is the story of a family gathered together for their father, Helge’s (Luke Sharples) sixtieth birthday party. As they gather together it very quickly becomes clear that this is a dysfunctional family who communicate by shouting and screaming at each other. But as the party progresses, the arguments they loudly have are shown to be the least of their problems. Every family has its secrets, but the darkness lurking within the Hansen family will mean that things are never the same again.
Directed by Scot Williams, the play is performed entirely behind a sheer black curtain. It opens with an illuminated clown mask showing through this curtain, smiling at the audience in a way which will make your blood run cold. A dinner table is set up for the party and the guests begin to arrive as children’s voices can be heard reciting playground chants.
The first to arrive is Christian (Joshua Ennis) who is soon followed by his brother Michael (Liam Powell Berry) accompanied by his wife Mette (Megan Burns) and daughter (Lauren Fleming). The relationship between Michael and Mette is very aggressive and they scream at and hit each other constantly.
Michael is also aggressive towards the waiter Lars (Jordan Barkley), particularly when Lars tells Michael he isn’t invited to the party and is not welcome to stay. This is due to Michael not attending Christian’s twin sister Linda’s funeral which has upset the rest of the family greatly.
The last family member to arrive is Helene (Alexandra Friday). When she is shown to her sister Linda’s room her terrified reaction makes it clear that there is more to everything than there seems. Friday’s palpable emotion during this scene is wonderful and really puts you onto the edge of your seat.
More masks are used as the party begins and the singing and dancing used are reminiscent of dark magical rituals. References towards mysterious Mason connections add to this.
The food is served and the family begin celebrating in earnest before Christian is asked to make the first speech. His speech contains a shocking revelation which sends the party off course and turns Christian’s entire family against him. As they argue and deny what he has said, the truth gradually becomes clear piece by piece, and by morning all of their lives have changed forever.
The reactions to the revelation and behaviour following it are very strange and disorientating. Ranging from eerie calm to vehement denial, the range of emotions showing by the actors are broad and extreme in their execution.
Ennis and Berry’s physical performances are outstanding for their portrayal of violence and the emotional reactions associated with it. Ennis’ facial expression is particularly good and Berry deserves particular praise for maintaining a continuously aggressive and violent demeanour.
A piano is used to create background noise which heightens the emotion of the play. On occasion the piano music was louder than some of the dialogue but it was not clear whether or not this was intentional.
This is a black comedy which combines elements of every family getting together and having the usual arguments with a shocking confession that leads on to a breath-taking climax. Hideously and tragically realistic, this peek behind the curtain will leave you speechless.
Festen is being performed at the Hope Street Theatre until on 25th May 2019. Tickets are available here https://tinyurl.com/y57ph2d4
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 23rd May 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★★