The Father at Wyndham Theatre
The idea of a play about Alzheimer’s may, on the face of it, not seem like an appealing prospect for a stage play – a somewhat “masked” illnesses obscured by lack of obvious pathology, it’s often a subject “softly” spoken of, something mediated through sufferers families. In The Father, such passive views are placed at the periphery, where the scene of a couple caught up in middle-class careers, in a middle-class place (a plush Parisian suburb), provides a disarming context for a centre-stage, first-person view of a confusing and heartbreaking descent into losing one’s very own sense of self.
And heartbreaking this play is. The character of the bearded and charismatic Parisian bon viveur of old Andre (played by Kenneth Cranham) is on the face of it, at the centre of a loving and convivial familial scene of a caring daughter Anne (played by Claire Skinner of Outnumbered fame) and a concerned son-in-law, before it unfolds into a bewildering chaos that is gripping. Drafted into short scenes of a downward trajectory, Florian Zeller’s play is cleverly punctuated by vignettes of uneasy digitally fragmented samples of Bach’s piano music and short-circuiting flashes of light in the human mind. The seemingly unchanging landscape of the same people in the same room, suddenly transform into the wrong faces in the wrong rooms. With increasingly fewer and fewer fixed points in Andre’s memory, what is revealed in the end is that nothing may be “real” in what he sees, hears or recalls – even perhaps the death of his most favoured daughter, a memory of her played in cameo by the recruit of a demure home helper.
Without really noticing, we see Andre’s charm replaced by dependency, the smart cravat for daytime pyjamas and the smart apartment replaced for a Spartan “cared” environment. Over the course of 90 minutes of succinct and brilliant writing, our proud protagonist moves from being the centre of his own world to the centre of his own nightmare.
A play that uses the clever device of asking more questions than providing answers, the darkest of all the unsolved riddles is the ambiguity about the role of a male nurse. As the curtain falls, a man reminiscent of Anne’s “boyfriends” (who menacingly man-handles Andre), asks the question at the heart of this play: “How long are you going to keep on getting on our tits for?” It’s no small wonder The Father won France’s Molière Award in 2014, before being translated and brought to English-speaking audiences by Christopher Hampton earlier this year.
The Father was on at Wyndham Theatre from 30th September until 21st November 2015. It will at Richmond Theatre from 11th April until 16th April 2016, for further information or to book visit here.