Stephen Karam's play is a ghostly, intense exploration of a family in crisis
Hampstead Theatre is presumably feeling pretty pleased with itself after landing a transfer of Stephen Karam's hit 2015 Broadway play, with original cast intact. And rightly so. 'The Humans' has a pretty unimaginative set-up: a bickering family with adult kids are plonked round a Thanksgiving dinner table and left to work through their differences. But it irradiates these elements with its ghostly, comfortless vision of a crumbling society.
The Irish-American Blake family are dealing with pretty much every domestic disaster imaginable, all at once, from unemployment to debt to relationship breakdown to disability to dementia. But still, it's their youngest daughter Brigid's lack of downstairs toilet they complain about. Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her bougie boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have invited her parents, sister and grandmother to a meal in a rented apartment they're fiercely proud of, even as David Zinn's brutally naturalistic set design showcases its every flaw, from lumpy, sloppily white-washed walls to the window that looks out right onto a brick wall. It's a neat metaphor for Brigid's own end-stopped ambitions: she's an aspiring composer who's found out her dreams are pretty much dead. Her sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) hasn't got much to look forward to, either: her heartbreakingly ill-advised phonecall to her newly ex-girlfriend is one of the play's high (or low) points.
Most plays set in Manhattan apartments are built on the unspoken assumption that everyone is loaded, frighteningly well-educated, and probably has at least one therapist on speed dial. Karam's play stands out for showing how comfortless attempts to live in the city are if you don't have that kind of pillow of prestige under you. Brigid's attempts to live out her dreams are set against the backdrop of her parents' terrifyingly urgent (and in her father Erik's case, nightmare-inducing) financial trouble, and need of support. The knife-edge horror of debt and instability are heightened, in Joe Mantello's tense, naturalistic production, by doomy rumblings of something supernatural just at the edges of everyone's consciousness. The trash compactor rumbles forebodingly, and crashes and bangs from the apartment upstairs means that no one can sink into a fug of boozy festive complacency, even for a moment.
Ultimately, this production's haunted house stylings feel a bit overwrought – perhaps because with writing this vivid, we don't need real ghosts to feel the chill.