The Animal Kingdom: Painful family therapy explored at Hampstead Theatre ****

The cast of The Animal Kingdom at Hampstead Theatre

The cast of The Animal Kingdom at Hampstead Theatre downstairs - Credit: Robert Day

The success of TV shows In Treatment and Couples Therapy prove there's compelling drama to be mined from "the talking cure".

Around the corner from the Tavistock - and Sigmund Freud's final home - Hampstead Theatre stages Ruby Thomas' nuanced, admirably restrained account of six family therapy sessions - with all their difficult, painful conversations.

Zoology student Sam is in psychiatric treatment following a suicide bid. Separated parents; garrulous Rita (Martina Laird) and taciturn Tim (Jonathan McGuinness) bring along teenage sister Sofia to collectively work through the whys and hows on Naomi Dawson's three sides set, which poses the audience as voyeurs.

The Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom - Credit: Robert Day

Are Sam's problems diagnosable? Genetic? Caused by bad parenting, or divorce? Thomas offers no pat answers in her spare script and director Lucy Morrison - and counsellor/facilitator Daniel (Paul Keating)  - keep a calming hand on the edgy emotions in the room as the protagonists rotate chairs while flickering overhead lights signal a jump cut between sessions.

The revelations when they come are all the more charged for that. Rita, a doula with a sprinkle of new age-isms, tells Sam "it's ok to be sad", but reveals she covered up her own mental health issues, just as her father did, out of shame.

Tim's self-made, stiff upper lip reticence are flagged as the culprit; his admission of repressed grief, and fatherly love come as a poignant breakthrough. And "resilient" Sofia (Ashna Rabheru) voices anger at Sam's blindsiding, devastating text while celebrating her ignored A Level results.

Ragevan Vasan as Sam in The Animal Kingdom Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Ragevan Vasan as Sam in The Animal Kingdom Hampstead Theatre Downstairs - Credit: Robert Day

All the performances are on point, but Ragevan Vasan stands out as an anxious, jittery young man who – despite his privileges – has never felt comfortable in his own skin, or with other human beings.

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Interspersed with bursts of anger and revelations about animal behaviour, his quietly devastating explanation of self harming and suicidal thoughts feels like another breakthrough of sorts - one that might lead towards understanding and self acceptance.

Talking, it turns out, is not a simple cure but a way to excavate hidden emotions and a staging post out of crisis for those who feel at odds with life.

At Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until March 26.