Review of THE FATHER by Florian Zeller | directed by Mary Allen

Review by Simon Jenner

It’s big shoes Kenneth Cranham’s left in his defining role as André, the once commanding engineer now shrunken with Alzheimer’s in Christopher Hampton’s English version of Florian Zeller’s The Father. In Mary Allen’s New Venture Theatre production Michael Bulman manages with superlative results to recreate André on his own terms.

There’s a moment when daughter Anne sits solitary near a lampshade, reciting how she’s dreamed strangling her ailing father André without resistance: grateful, he smiled in death. It’s one of those moments – in a play that masters our hallucinations – that tell us it’s not simply the eponymous title character of the play who’s skewing the audience with delusions. Allen paces this so the eighty minutes is both absorbing and slowly headlong: utterly Greek.

It means even when André’s off-stage delusions continue: through Anne’s dream, or the wider question of who dreams who in this moving, Pinteresque telling of a man slipping not gently into Alzheimer’s; and his daughter’s attempts to lovingly accommodate dementia with increasingly desperate strategies at husband Pierre’s prompting.

That bleak white prospect’s a way off as Bulman’s André peppers daughter Anne (Lyn Snowdon) with the rich baritonal registers from his singing career, in day-clothing permanently switched for pyjamas.

Bulman begins with the avuncular command of his former self, but reaches through eighty minutes some beautifully-placed notes: bewilderment, anger, petulance, terror (of the husband) and sheer sweeping desolation with a vocal range not seen before.

Strat Mastoris’ classical design features two white flanking panels to a central one, where three fine abstract paintings by Delphine
du Barry hang, and centrally upstage there’s a chest of drawers and a flourishing vase. Stage right there’s a sofa with a throw by Jackie Jones, that eventually transforms into a bleak hospital bed. Opposite is a dining set.To facilitate cunning scene-shifts
Mastoris’ lighting (operated by Max Videaux) is turned on the audience blindingly, just as the original British production. Following the original design too, between each tableau black-out instead of Bach preludes, Cata Lindegaard deploys Philip Glass’s minimalist piano music with disruptions. They trill in increasingly ruptured playback to assure us of André’s deterioration, yet the scenes remain lucid. One factor in the disease’s progression is the clearing away of furniture, as apparently recalled items vanish. First it’s the paintings, vase, chest of drawers vanishing as the spotlights darken all behind them. At one point we’d swear with André we’re in the drawing room.

Anne’s trying a new carer Laura, bubbly Marie Owens, since she’s leaving to live in London where as André quips, it always rains. She’s joining Pierre (Mark Lester), a man she’s known a few months . . . a long time. André’s coping strategies are asserted: the previous carer stole his watch. Proved wrong he says she would have! Characters leave for the kitchen; their existence is then denied. It’s not London but Paris, it’s not a new man but one she’s been with ten years. It’s not his flat but theirs. And then it’s London again.

A second partner (Simon Messingham) appears whom neither we nor André recognize, and briefly a second Anne, Emmie Spencer, early on. Narratives of Anne’s relationship shift. André turns cruelly on Anne and Laura, particularly investing a vanished daughter with Anne’s qualities, saying he loves her, not Anne.

Grumbling husband Pierre asserts André’s living in their flat. The London theme returns. We’re never sure, as in Old Times – surely one starting-point of this essentially triangular relationship, which scenario’s true north. Lester’s the grumbly one, seemingly sympathetic at first with more variable notes, even of reason. He’s capable though of proving behind Anne’s back – as André sees it – he’s got nasty streak; Zeller provides enough interchange with the couple themselves to suggest that. Messingham’s Man (not named) is truculent from the outset.

Spencer not only as Anne, but Laura and a nurse, furnishes sharp analogues to non-recognition. Spencer manages a more quizzical
nuance to distinguish her from Owens’ more childcare-minder Laura, one who’s essentially reductive and infantilising in manner despite initial charm and acceptance. This shift isn’t simply dementia; brief derangement might prove one deviation into sense.
And there’s chronological disruptions where despite the gradual denuding of the set, you realize a later scene comes before. Yet it feels as well as looks later.

Lester’s Pierre shocks suddenly: we just surmise resentful André imagines it. Anne can’t understand why André’s flinching. Scenes reprised, the cast shifts. Suddenly it’s Messsingham and he repeats the gesture. André’s seemingly cruel references to his
favourite daughter transform in Anne’s and André’s shared processing; one scene washes conciliatory pathos with terror. Subtle reprise – though André sharply complains at Anne repeating herself! – gifts a cubist provisionality in Zeller’s masterly construction, its suffering short-circuitry built in.

Bulman gives a blasted heath of a central performance, perfectly tuned to pathos terror and rage: ‘I’m losing my leaves.’ His voice is so micro-pitched that to hear him deliberately crack it exposes a reservoir of shimmering terror.

Snowdon too in a controlled repertoire of tenderness, exasperation and despair counterpoises him, registering the human analogue of this loss. Snowdon’s mostly a little harder-toned than one expects at first, but during the performance she paradoxically
softens her approach as the inevitable itself approaches.

As Spencer patiently explains the final version of his daughter to him, André has to ask another question urging to that final devastating recognition. And the tragedy that he’ll forget he ever realised his tragedy.

Nearly seven years on from its French premiere, The Father proves one of the greatest plays of the decade. Zeller’s written two other plays that reached the West End, both rightly praised; but this remains his masterpiece, and the definitive drama on a terrible subject. Already a classic, it’s directed by Allen with classic economy, featuring a design by Mastoris that underscores it and a set of performances – necessarily Bulman’s above all – that would do it justice anywhere.