Benet Catty Productions

The Father (WE 2016)

Feb 1, 2016


Returning for a short London run and a tour, The Father holds the dual distinction of being not only the most critically-praised new play in London this decade but also one of the least likely commercial hits.

A play about an old man gradually descending into dementia and the effect this has on his family feels likely to be a tough evening out. But for a subject that will touch so many people in their lifetimes (800,00 people are estimated to suffer from dementia in the UK) it feels relevant and though variously frightening and moving it is not a feel-bad show. It exudes warmth and generosity, which remain even as sadness threatens to overwhelm them.

Adapted from Florian Zeller\'s award-winning French play by Christopher Hampton, author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (currently brilliantly revived in London starring Dominic West) and the long running Art, The Father walks a line between domestic drama and Pinter-inflected tension and oddity. Hampton and Zeller\'s impressive achievement lies in managing to be simultaneously heavy of subject but light of touch.

The play puts the audience in a similar mindset to the central character Andre - a state of partial confusion - taking him and us from slight discomfort to total panic. Without wishing to spoil any surprises, we discover that the daughter he\\\'s been talking to and we\\\'ve come to know is not who he (and we) thought she was and the relationship she\\\'s in appears to be unclear too. And he can\\\'t find his watch.

Following each of the many snap blackouts that punctuate scene breaks, accompanied by jagged irritating piano music, we return sometime later and gradually notice that some furniture in the room has magically vanished. And yet it is never referred to. Representing the gradual loss of his mind and bearings, the slow transformation of the design from a fairly standard middle class living room to, ultimately, three bare walls and a bed becomes dislocating and ultimately devastating.

Kenneth Cranham, the original Inspector in the world conquering Stephen Daldry production of An Inspector Calls, plays the eponymous character with warmth and humour and absolutely no sense of heartstring-pulling. Despite his charm and his seeming conviviality, there comes a choice for the children - the life he\\\'s in the process of forgetting, or their life that they are yet to experience. Either choice is right or wrong, depending on your point of view, and many will have made it themselves or known those who have had to. The choice made here is moving; his unawareness of it is ultimately almost overwhelming.

I\\\'d be hard pressed to think of a play after which i have felt so shaken for so long since Edward Albee\\\'s masterpiece The Goat starring Jonathan Pryce and a then-unknown Eddie Redmayne more than a decade ago.

The silence in an audience of 1,000 people during the play\\\'s final scene was almost as astonishing as the concluding moments themselves; as if the audience, like his memory and sense of himself, had gradually faded away. The standing ovation which followed felt like it was an audience not just celebrating a great cast, or even Cranham\\\'s award-winning lead performance, nor the dutiful rise to the feet that has become increasingly common in West End shows in the last few years. Rather it felt like it was an audience giving respect and thanks to a play that provides such emotional intelligence to a subject that will personally touch so many of us.

The Father is one of a triptych of plays by Zeller translated by Hampton, and London will be able to see all of them in the next couple of months. The Mother runs at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn until March 5th and is very much a companion piece in both style and tone to The Father, with Gina McKee playing the central character. Although excellently played, it has much less emotional power. The Truth opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory in March. Meanwhile an entirely new production of The Father starring Frank Langella is about to open in New York. No wonder.

This play about losing ones memory is one of the most memorable plays in London.

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