The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2013
David Auburn's play of 2000 is not a major work but it does provide four meaty acting roles, which director Polly Findlay and her excellent cast take full advantage of in this revival. So it is for the very human and sympathetic characterisations they create, and the pleasure of watching the actors at work, that it is most worth seeing.
The mathematician daughter of a brilliant mathematician who fell prey to a tragic mental illness resists her own gift since it might carry the same propensity for madness.
And when she comes up with a piece of math more brilliant than anything her father did, she is torn between the accusation she's just stealing something he produced in a moment of lucidity and the fear of what asserting ownership might imply.
Ultimately the play doesn't really have much to say about either mathematics or madness. It's the human stories – of the young woman, her father, the father's former student revering the old man but attracted to the daughter, and the sister fearing for her sister's sanity – that will hold your attention and sympathy, and it is these that director and actors have wisely chosen to develop more fully than previous productions.
Mariah Gale creates the very sympathetic portrait of a woman whose fear of madness may be driving her mad, and who must wrestle with the love of the father whom she tended through his illness and desperately misses now that he has died, the pride (and touch of guilt) that she may in fact be more gifted than he, the worry over what that may imply about her mental stability, the patronisation by her 'normal' sister, the attraction to the young man and the feeling of betrayal when he questions her authorship of the new breakthrough.
That's a lot for a character to feel and for an actress to convey, and Gale captures it all in a mercurial nervous energy that has her literally bouncing all over the stage, driven by one emotion or another in quick succession.
At the same time she never lets us lose sight of the one quality all these concerns and emotions have in common – pain – and the fact that we are witnessing a character having only the rarest brief respites from unhappiness holds our involvement and sympathy throughout.
Matthew Marsh plays the father seen in flashbacks and fantasy moments, sensitively building his characterisation almost entirely on the loving father rather than the genius, so that we relate to him on that wholly human level.
And so when the play makes the daughter relive the moment of her father's succumbing to his illness, it is the crumbling man rather than the fading mind we are most aware of and touched by.
The other two characters are written more as plot devices than rounded humans, and it is much to the credit of Jamie Parker and Emma Cunniffe that they flesh them out almost further than the playwright gave them the material for.
The job of the young man is to confuse the central character even further by introducing romance and betrayal into her mix, but Parker pieces together an attractive human being out of the acolyte's reverence for his former mentor, the young man's attraction to the interesting and slightly scary young woman, the professional's scepticism that a beginner could come up with the mathematical breakthrough and the lover's guilt at being unable to support his beloved unreservedly.
And with the almost comically conventional sister there just to be the villain of the piece, Cunniffe digs below the clichés to find a woman of very limited imagination sincerely trying to do what's best.
Forget about the math – it's really irrelevant. Keep your eye on the human story of four imperfect people trying to muddle through, and you'll find the richness in a production that does more with this play than any other version I've seen.
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