Performed at the Duke of York's Theatre, London
ld age is one of our most ubiquitous fears. The inevitability that our minds will one day deteriorate is enough to keep anyone awake at night. French playwright Florian Zeller attempted to capture this anxiety in his play Le Père ("The Father"), which went on to win France's highest theatrical honour, the Molière Award, in 2014. Now, Christopher Hampton’s superb translation brings The Father to the UK. Originally opening at the Theatre Royal in Bath, the production returned to the West End for a limited season at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Under James MacDonald’s direction, the play is every bit as unsettling as its subject matter.
Upon entering the auditorium, Miriam Buether’s true to life stage design creates a false sense of security – we are tricked into thinking this is going to be a standard stage drama. Towards the beginning of the play we start to get comfortable. But as more unfolds, we begin to understand that it is precisely this authenticity that the play derives its unease from.
The 70-year-old Kenneth Cranham is outstanding as Andre, an elderly man slowing descending into the grip of dementia. Cranham starred in the popular 1980s comedy TV series Shine on Harvey Moon, as well as having appearances in films such as Layer Cake (2004) and the 1968 musical screen adaptation of Oliver Twist. But he is no stranger to the stage, and has previously been nominated for a Laurence Oliver Award for his role as Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls. But this time, he managed to win it.
At first, a dark humour is derived from this doddery old man losing his watch, but later we almost feel guilty for laughing. Due to its theme, the script can be emotionally demanding, but we are rewarded with a captivating insight into the realities of dementia. Yet the play manages to evade becoming a dry study of Alzheimer’s disease, instead exploring the more emotional concerns of isolation, grief and father-daughter relationships.
Amanda Drew, who is most well-known for her role as May Wright in EastEnders, plays Andre’s daughter Anne. Her love for her father is strained as she attempts to care for him as his situation slowly worsens. A story from her perspective would have been a compelling enough premise, but where the play really succeeds in disconcerting us is by placing us in the mind of Andre. Actors switch roles and vanish when they enter different rooms, scenes are repeated, but with subtle dialogue changes, and the timeline jumps around. These highly jarring narrative techniques initially make us think we are losing track of the story – but we soon realise that we too, along with Andre, are perplexed, losing all sense of time and place. Christopher Shutt’s sound design compounds this effect by the use of off-kilter piano music which plays during every scene change. Initially, the kitsch sound of pre-recorded music seems at odds with the production’s otherwise veristic style. But with each scene, the music becomes more skewed – popping and cutting out like a broken tape player – eerily paralleling Andre’s decline in brain function.
The interplay between Andre and his daughter is a tragic spectacle – the play is underlined by the quandary of helplessly standing by as a loved one reverts to a childlike state, necessitating constant care. This reversal of roles is one that the play affectively haunts us with. The Father shows remarkable restraint, a theme so provocative could have easily been presented as a dementia horror story. However, it moves us instead with its brutal honesty and pragmatic performances. The Father leaves us heart-broken – pondering the fragile nature of our own minds.