DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Father – Harrogate Theatre

Writer: Florian Zeller

Translator: Christopher Hampton

Director: Kevin Shaw

Designer: Patrick Connellan

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Florian Zeller’s play has had remarkable international success. First produced in Paris in 2012, it gained him the Prix Moliere and since then in Christopher Hampton’s translation has won or been nominated for all the major awards in the UK and the USA, both for Best Play and Best Actor (Kenneth Cranham and Frank Langella respectively).

This suggests – rightly – that, apart from anything else, The Father provides a wonderful lead role for the actor playing Andre, an opportunity Kenneth Alan Taylor seizes upon in this Oldham Coliseum production with a stylish, subtle, perfectly judged and ultimately very moving performance.

Zeller had the inspired idea of writing a play about dementia that sees the world through the eyes of the sufferer. Only in the last scene are we confident of the reality of the situation and the people. This scene explains many of the oddities of earlier events, but we are still left with nagging doubts about who said or did what. So Zeller introduces us to the world of the dementia sufferer. 

Andre begins the play, urbane in a very smart three-piece suit, longish white hair immaculately groomed, authoritative in an argument with his daughter, Anne. Certainly, he may have upset his latest carer, but she is a thief – she has stolen his watch – and this is his flat, he can do what he wants. He doesn’t need a carer, anyway, he insists. He suffers memory lapses, but he seems a self-confident bourgeois in command of the situation.

At first, we are amused by his fantasies of having been a famous dancer and intrigued by the contradictions – The Father is a puzzle play as well as a powerful study of dementia. Then slowly, simply, the nightmare begins. Is Anne living in Paris or London and with or without Pierre? Is the flat Andre commands his own or has he been taken in by Anne? Why do Anne, Pierre and Laura, the new carer, sometimes metamorphose into quite different people, played with a sort of anonymous naturalness by Colin Connor and Helen Kay?

Why do events repeat themselves in slightly different form as time is scrambled? The metaphor of the missing watch looms over the action.

Kenneth Alan Taylor can be charmingly spry or arrogantly hectoring as Andre, but the heart of his fine performance is the slow descent from his imagined independence into a sadly shuffling figure in pyjamas, increasingly gripped by terror – it is a compelling physical performance.

Kerry Peers ticks all the boxes as Anne – loving daughter, hurt at her father’s preference for her never-seen sibling, torn between duty and the wish to live her own life – without quite inhabiting the part. The focus of our sympathy remains firmly on Andre; perhaps Anne should have a claim on some of it. John Elkington (Pierre) does a convincing line in subdued sullenness and Jo Mousley is full of brisk efficiency as Laura, her wince-inducing kiddie speak provoking a contemptuous, “Are you a nun?” from Andre.

Under Kevin Shaw’s direction, the play has a surface simplicity with hints of blurred depths beyond – and the same can be said for Patrick Connellan’s set, with its lateral screen cutting off the upstage area where furniture comes and goes, noisily carried on and off to the annoyance and confusion of Andre. On the forestage is the skeleton of a ripped apart piano, a symbol no doubt for Andre’s mind, like Hamlet’s “sweet bells jangled out of tune”.

Runs until 8 July 2017 | Image: Joel C Fildes

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