The Father (Richmond Theatre)

The Father (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, April 16th)

There are times when Florian Zeller’s poignant and penetrating play The Father becomes too hard to watch. The savage but heart-breakingly honest drama about an elderly dementia sufferer explores the illness very much from his point of view and the way in which scenes judder, repeat, cease abruptly and often simply confuse make this an immersive theatre experience that can require a strong stomach.

The relatively young French writer displays a mature understanding of the subject, with what at first seems a straightforward family drama rapidly descending into bewilderment. If the audience doesn’t quite understand what is going on – characters change appearance between scenes, or just disappear, items of furniture vanish – then this only adds to the identity with elderly Andre, who is constantly baffled by apparent variations in familiar places, routines and faces.

Certainty upon certainty is stripped away as the 90-minute play with no interval progresses. Does Andre have one daughter or two? Is he living in his own flat or is it his daughter’s and is it in London or Paris? Is she married, divorced or dating? Is the flat beautifully furnished or deliberately minimalist? What time of the day is it? And just where is that watch? The peeling away of surety affects the characters on stage as much as it does those in the auditorium and the evening is never comfortable. Indeed, the audience might even find itself asking if they are the ones losing their marbles.

It’s not all doom and gloom: Christopher Hampton’s crisp translation and James Macdonald’s classy direction ensure a degree of dark humour is often present in the midst of the frequently harrowing. True to life, even family and carers whose patience is being tested can see a funny side to the frustration.    

Part of the reason for the lightness in the bleak but absorbing play is down to Kenneth Cranham, extraordinary as Andre. It is impossible not to chuckle as he tries to persuade a new carer that he used to be a tap dancer or a circus performer, and his flirting is wickedly outrageous. Yet there is always sadness in the shadows: we sense Andre’s strong personality yet see his vulnerability, and we will him to remain strong as he fights through his disorientation.

The gut-wrenching scene in which Cranham lies in bed on an otherwise empty stage, yelling “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves… branches… in the wind,” while his eyes change from those of a lost child to all-out panic is evidence enough of why he won the best actor Olivier Award earlier this month.

In an exceptionally strong cast Amanda Drew is perfect as the weary and long-suffering Anne, haunted by nightmares of what might be, drained by Andre’s demands, but never less than 100% supportive. Jade Williams gives a lovely performance as Laura, the bright hope in the darkness, always professional and non-judgemental, while Daniel Flynn as Pierre shows well the strain of someone trying to remain patient in an impossible situation. Strong support too from Brian Doherty and Rebecca Charles, adding to the growing sense of questioning on and off stage.  

It could all be the height of theatrical pretentiousness and yet it works because of its simplicity. The hiccups and buzzes in the music between scenes, which sometimes even seem to echo the beeps of medical equipment (great sound design by Christopher Shutt) and the other dramatic devices are never too clever, but underline what is happening in the story.

Some critics have likened the play to a modern King Lear, yet this isn’t a Shakespearean tragedy where the protagonist is somehow responsible for his own fate. This is, rather, a cry from the heart to understand an illness affecting large numbers of sufferers in the modern era, and the devastating impact it has on families.  Yet there are certainly shades of Lear and his descent into madness as indeed there are nods to Harold Pinter with the play’s confusion and ambiguity.

Ultimately the play sends the audience out perhaps a little wiser, certainly haunted, and maybe even terrified about what might come tomorrow. It’s brilliant, thought-provoking – and devastating.

David Guest

Photo by Mark Douet.