Your enjoyment of this clever drama by Simon Stephens may depend on whether or not you find the idea of a 42 year old woman and a 75 year old man having an intimate relationship acceptable, and whether you find the performances of Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham convincing.
The acting is top notch in this tale which utilises a simple set of tables, chairs and bed which rise and disappear from and into the floor as required. We get to know Georgie and Alex from their first meeting at a train station, where she impulsively kisses him on the neck and then spins tall tales about her life.
This vibrant American woman has troubles and regrets in her life, and yet it feels OK that she feels herself drawn to the lonely, elderly butcher who loves tango dancing and who is haunted by the memories of both his dead sister and his lost love.
This is a moving piece by its close, even if the bedroom scene feels a little uncomfortable at first. We understand this pair, thrown together by life, she bored by her mundane job, he lifted up by the whole string of musical genres he reels off when asked about his taste.
The plot may stretch credulity a bit, but the companionable chemistry between the leads keeps this short two-hander constantly interesting.
It is currently set to run until January 2018, and there is good availability at most prices.
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.
Two plays by Peter Terson showed at the BFI Southbank this week as part of their season of his work (entitled ‘The Artisan Playwright’). The first example was from Granada Television in 1972, and the second from the BBC in 1973, so we are looking at television material from four decades ago, when there were only three channels and the amount of single drama available on the small screen was much more than today.
First up we had ‘The Samaritan’, a three-hander running just over an hour which starred Tom Bell, Martin Jarvis, and Kenneth Cranham (Cranham gave a brief introduction to the piece where he recalled this play as one of his first appearances on television). Jarvis plays Godfrey, a Samaritan who seems to live to listen and do good to others. Bell plays Vic, a hard drinking neurotic poet who is given to flowery speeches and impulsive gestures, while Cranham plays Terry, a nervy young man who is recovering from some trauma which we never quite identify. Wordy and clever, this play moves between character viewpoints and therefore leaves the viewer torn between what they originally saw and what they see by the end of the piece. Although all the cast are excellent, it is Bell who really dominates the play and shows us what a great actor he was.
The second play was ‘The Ballad of Ben Bagot’, which was written for the Scene strand of plays aimed at difficult teenagers, and it runs a sparse twenty-five minutes. Director Ronald Smedley recalled in his introduction to this his unease at receiving a script which was simply poetry which he had to shape into a narrative which worked using music and locations. Peter Firth, then eighteen years old, shows what a talented young performer he was in the pivotal role of Bagot, who has chosen to leave school early and get a job to support his pregnant girlfriend, but in-between the mundane parts of his life he dreams a fantasy life not unreminiscent of Billy Liar, where he triumphs with his shoehorn sword, beats a path through the jungle, and repurposes classic poems for his own heroics (‘Ben Bagot, may his tribe increase, awoke one day from a deep dream of peace ..’). His English Lit teacher (played by a twitchy Jack Shepherd) despairs of his charge while Bags sets fire to his school uniform and aches for a freedom where he can be a pop star or a great business brain.
An interesting pairing, perhaps linked together by the common theme of the poetic soul, and of course the words of Peter Terson, who was a writer of style, wit, and quirkiness, the type of playwright who would never get a platform on commercial television today. The season continues throughout May, and a future entry on LouReviews will cover another pair of plays showing next week.