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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Father
Tricycle Theatre Spring 2015; Wyndham's Theatre Autumn 2015; Duke of York's Theatre Spring 2016

This is a play about Alzheimer's, which means that it is not a bundle of laughs. It is in fact scary and depressing, but it is also excitingly intriguing and involving. 

French playwright Florian Zeller takes us into the nightmarish experience of the disease, disorienting us without the use of any flashy theatrical effects and guiding us to a unique understanding of its horrors. 

In the first scene we meet elderly Andre and his daughter Anne in his flat. Scene Two seems to pick up where the first left off, but we're now in Anne's flat, she has a live-in lover and she is played by a different actress. 

In Scene Three the original Anne is back, the lover is gone (and his existence denied), and Anne introduces her father to his new carer Laura, played by the alternate Anne of Scene Two. 

A scene later Laura is a different actress and the lover is back as a different actor. And so on. In all there are three actresses and two actors moving in and out of Andre's perceptions as the facts he is told about them keep changing. 

We may eventually figure out who is who, and why Andre is jumbling them, but there will always remain some details that even we can't pin down.

It is an audacious device, and one that works remarkably well, making us share to some degree the experience of the play's central character, and generating an empathy mere external observation could not match. 

There is also something really clever and evocative about Miriam Buether's set, which I won't give away except to note that you will spot it and be moved by it at almost the same moment Andre does. 

Director James Macdonald wisely sees that this beautifully constructed play is also fragile and could only be damaged by lily-gilding, so he has led his cast to simple and direct realistic playing. 

Kenneth Cranham captures Andre's befuddlement and growing distress through admirable underplaying, and there is strong but unobtrusive support from the rest of the cast, notably Claire Skinner as the 'real' Anne. 

The play isn't perfect. The influence of early Harold Pinter (underlined by translator Christopher Hampton with some direct quotes) is both obvious and irrelevant, a frequently mentioned offstage character's true story is telegraphed an hour in advance, and even at just over 90 minutes the play is a little longer than it really needs to be.

But these are cavils about a remarkably original and powerful drama. Florian Zeller is in his early 30s, about the age that major British dramatists like Pinter, Stoppard and Ayckbourn began to find their true voices. 

On the evidence of The Father, there should be a lot more to look forward to from this all-but-unknown-in-Britain writer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Father - Tricycle Theatre 2015

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