Florian Zeller’s play The Father (presented, as here, in Christopher Hampton’s translation), addressed the issue of an old man, Andre, suffering from dementia, and the efforts of his daughter Anne to keep the situation as normal as possible.
In The Height of the Storm, we again have a central character called Andre with a daughter called Anne. He (played with sensitivity and flashes of power by Jonathan Pryce) is first encountered looking out of the kitchen window, the night after a storm, and we feel there is a loss pervading the house, somewhere, as Anne (Amanda Drew) talks of estate agents, managing alone, and flowers.
We are therefore somewhat wrongfooted at the appearance of Madeleine (a matter-of-fact Eileen Atkins, the centre of this home), wife to Andre and mother to Anne and to Elise (Anna Madeley), who joins her after a shopping expedition, leading to a flash of exposition about mushrooms, meals, and family togetherness.
Whether we are seeing what is real, or whether one, or both, of the parents have died, we are never quite sure. Some scenes seem to be running in Andre’s confusion where he imagines his wife has only gone to her vegetable patch while their daughters are grieving for her loss; other times he is a frustrated observer at his own memorial rites.
What is certain is the cornerstone of this half-a-century of marriage, into which even the interpolation of “The Woman” is ultimately meaningless; whether she is a lost love and mother of an unknown child, or whether she is a well-meaning representative of a care home, we are never sure, and even her name becomes mangled in a sequence of similar appellations.
Pryce evokes the coming on of Alzheimer’s convincingly, from the stares of fear, the twitching, the repeated gestures, the angry outbursts, the confusion, and the ever-brief glimpses of a fragile lucidity. Atkins, pursed-lipped and resigned, is the carer and the force to which he clings, and to which her daughters return, even when their presence is resented (the moment she angrily dismisses Anne with the f word is genuinely shocking, and funny).
As in The Father, there is a man who might be one thing, and might be another, and there is an uncomfortable and briefly threatening scene where we can taste the fear in the old man’s gait, and want nothing more than to reassure him that all is well. Drew – who played Anne in The Father when I watched it – is very good as the elder child who tries to assume control of a situation she cannot understand any more than we can; and Madeley hovers on the sidelines, helpless to intervene or come to terms with her loss.
The last scene, to me, felt very final, as if these ghosts remained bonded in the house they had created, neither really knowing which one wasn’t there any more: perhaps Madeleine’s anecdote about the hotel was the fact no-one wanted to discuss? What was really on the card with the flowers, and who dropped it?
Anyone who has lost someone close will want to see this, and will be intensely moved by the writing and the performances. Jonathan Kent directs, Anthony Ward designs (and the set brilliantly evokes an ordered mind which has started to disintegrate, with its chair, window, knick knacks, and extensive library), and Lucy Cohu and James Hillier do what they can with small but necessary roles.
This production belongs to Pryce and Atkins, though, who match each other moment by moment, and completely convince throughout. This rather marvellous, quiet, and short (80 minutes) piece runs at the Wyndham’s until the 1st December.
Photos by Hugo Glendinning.