Florian Zeller’s emotional and difficult play, translated into English by Christopher Hampton, had its UK premiere in October 2014 at the Theatre Royal Bath.
Since then it has been to London on three occasions, and in all its versions Kenneth Cranham has been the cornerstone of the cast as André, the eighty-year old whose life starts to fracture because of the Alzheimer’s which causes his memory to fail. As he states himself at the devastating close of this 85 minute play, he is losing all his leaves. His is a towering masterclass in acting, destructive, playful, irritable, confused, and ultimately vulnerable and locked in his own collapsing universe.
Amanda Drew plays his daughter Anne, who may or may not be divorced, moving to London, living in her father’s flat, taking him into her own flat, or finding carers to help her cope with an increasingly difficult existence. It’s a nuanced performance
Rebecca Charles, who has been with the play since the start as well, appears as Anne, as a carer, as a nurse, as a face André clearly remembers, but from where? And Jade Williams remains as a sympathetic Laura, a young lady who jokes with a mischevious André in a moment of lucidity (although claiming he was once a tap dancer), but who also has a second where she cracks at a revelation about the unseen daughter, Elise (‘the one I love’, says André, in the presence of the long-suffering Anne).
Daniel Flynn and Brian Doherty round out the cast as men who may or may not be Anne’s husband Pierre or her boyfriend Antoine, or is it Pierre? They present an unsympathetic side of observers outside the immediate space, although whether simply frustrated or openly hostile is not clear.
I went to this with my husband, who was himself a carer for a parent with dementia. This play stirred some deep-seated memories, and he found it a disturbing and upsetting experience and said afterwards he would have walked out of the play had he felt able to do so. This is not a reflection on the quality of the production, just on how it made him feel on a personal level.
For myself, with experience of a grandparent who was eventually put in a home when she could no longer look after herself or process her short-term memories, and with a parent who is increasingly frail and elderly, I found that many aspects of the play rang true and that the ultimate and inevitable conculsion was heartbreaking. It upset me for quite a while afterwards, which is a reflection on the quality of the cast and the writing, and the ability of both to reach across to engage and move an audience.
The sound and staging design uses the repetition and sticking of a musical coda to represent the mind of the central character, as indeed does the play itself, with scenes repeating with different focus, sometimes different actors playing the roles, and other interesting flourishes. Furniture disappears between scenes – indicating the loss of areas of the brain which happens during Alzheimer’s, perhaps, as well as highlighting the sense of confusion.
One of the reviews of this play called The Father ‘immersive theatre’, and I see what they mean. It should – and in our experience did – make an audience think and reflect, and to linger for longer than the short running time. I think it achieves both the aim and the definition.