It’s doubtful we share too many readers with the Daily Express which each week seems to trumpet some new ‘cure’ for Alzheimer’s, like this one. And this one. But go see The Father — an intimate portrait of disintegration, and whether you fear its coming on your own behalf or are the generation who’ll have to contend with parental decline — and you’ll be scanning the headlines for any news of a remedy.
Florian Zeller‘s sharply-focused piece won the 2014 Prix Molière in Paris but is an arriviste in London where we have been on this theatrical ground before: John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father showed a former wordsmith and wit reduced to dependency and Alan Ayckbourn’s brilliant Woman in Mind plays stage tricks with perception and dialogue to slacken your grip on reality.
Zeller deals with the erosion of the mind with original and genuinely disorienting technique so you see the disintegration from the inside out: if central character André ‘forgets’ a piece of furniture from his Paris apartment, it disappears from the set, and if he’s unclear about a given member of his family, they’re suddenly played by a different actor. Flashing lights around the set known as ‘blinders’ disorient you between scenes almost as much as the plotting continually wrong-foots your assumptions. It’s undeniably clever.
The script is occasionally oddly-phrased in Christopher Hampton’s translation and once the characters discuss ‘a home’ you may predict the outcome, but performances are superlatively good. Kenneth Cranham instantly engages you as a gently forgetful and somewhat peppery André, quickly progresses through disbelief, impatience and angry misunderstanding but at the climax instead of railing at his daughter like Lear, his heroic distress is tender, and touching, and tired.
As daughter Anne, Claire Skinner initially seems not much distanced from her capable but sanguine TV wife in BBC comedy Outnumbered, but her occasional physical stillness as she contains a reaction to changed circumstances is remarkable to see, and the tensions she builds with partner Nicholas Gleaves — who may or may not have given the old man a slap — are neat and convincing, a million refreshing miles from sitcom.
Contemporary. Unsettling. Watchable; put The Father on your ‘must-see’ list.
If you’re affected by issues in the play, the Alzheimer’s Society may be able to help.