played until 26 March
All of a sudden, Florian Zeller has become the man of the moment in London theatre. An acclaimed playwright in his homeland of France and across Europe, his works had never been performed in English until autumn 2014. A new translation of The Father by Christopher Hampton enjoyed a run at the Theatre Royal Bath, before playing at the Tricycle Theatre to great acclaim – a West End transfer followed quickly at the Wyndham’s Theatre, and finally at the Duke of York’s. With partner play The Mother also winning praise, and The Truth opening this month, Zeller is certainly making his name known.
Throughout these productions, so much acclaim has been heaped upon the show and its cast that expectations were high by the time I took my seat in the front row of the Duke of York’s earlier this month. Yet each of these expectations was more than fulfilled, as a clever script, nifty design and superb performances create a fully-rounded and moving production.
In the title role, Kenneth Cranham is shattering, funny and frustrating – often all at once. His portrayal of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s is warm and full of intelligent detail, and frequently breaks your heart with the confused criss-crossing of his threads of thought. Zeller’s script intelligently evokes André’s disorientation by switching the actresses who play his daughter, by repeating conversations in the wrong order, and by peppering the dialogue with contradictions that reflect André’s bewildered mind. Furniture moves and disappears, destabilising André’s sense of location. Frequently, we are as perplexed as him as we remain unsure which version of the truth is the ‘real’ one.
As André’s daughter Anne, Amanda Drew gives a devastating performance of a woman struggling to cope in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation. Her partner Pierre (an unsettling portrayal by Daniel Flynn) is slowly unfolded as the apparent villain of the piece, psychologically and eventually physically abusing André behind Anne’s back. Or does he – Zeller’s puzzle of a play never gives us a stable base to stand on, and we’re never quite sure what the reality of the situation is. Which is the ‘real’ scene and which is blurred by the grey fog of his fading memory?
The final scene is crushing, making the heart overflow at Cranham’s powerful, distressing performance in the final tableau. It is surely the performance of his career: we can see his inner struggle as the cogs turn rustily, as he strains to get a grip on his rapidly failing memory and as the frustration of a world that makes less and less sense starts to take hold. A triumphant performance in a nigh-on perfect production – ingeniously crafted and stunningly realised.