The Father Brings Dementia Into Sharp Focus

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 42 months ago
The Father Brings Dementia Into Sharp Focus ★★★★★ 5

Kenneth Cranham (André) and Claire Skinner (Anne) in The Father. Photo by Simon Annand

Londonist Rating: ★★★★★

Winner of the 2014 Molière Award, French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father is a profoundly moving and darkly comic representation of the effects of dementia. Not only does it portray the illness’s degenerative symptoms of memory loss, it makes the audience identify with the sufferer’s increasingly precarious grip on reality through its fragmented structure, use of different actors to play the same character and repeated passages of dialogue. The protagonist might be losing the plot, but we too strive to work out what is real and what is not.

André is in a fairly advanced stage of Alzheimer’s but as is the nature of the disease he fails to acknowledge it. After he has fallen out with his third nurse, his deeply concerned daughter Anne must consider putting him in a home; she's about to move from Paris to London after falling in love with an Englishman. But is she? Next thing we see is André living with her and her long-time husband in their flat, though he thinks it’s his and he suspects they are trying to get rid of him. And anyway, where is his other, favourite daughter?

Nothing is what is seems. We share André’s confusion and disorientation, while he slides from interludes of self-assertive lucidity to doubt and fear of Anne’s possibly abusive partner, and ultimately a second childhood’s primal need for comfort and security, as he loses touch with even his own identity. But Zeller’s brilliantly concise and constructed play also shows the perspectives of his compassionate daughter, his frustrated son-in-law and professional carers. And the bleakness of the subject matter is saved from becoming unbearable by the many absurdly humorous moments that surprise us.

This English-language version by Christopher Hampton (who’s previously had big hits with his translations of Yasmina Reza’s plays such as Art) is admirably crisp and direct. James Macdonald’s production (first staged at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath late last year) brings intense focus on the multiple short scenes in between which snatches of Bach’s sublimely-measured keyboard music are strangely interrupted like disconnections in the brain. And while the stage is blacked out, the furniture in Miriam Buether’s design of an elegantly minimalist flat disappears bit by bit to eventually leave a white cube, replicating André’s progressively vacant mind.

The white-bearded Kenneth Cranham gives the performance of a lifetime as the Lear-like André, dressed mainly in pyjamas, seeming to become physically diminished as time wears on. Alternately aggressive and pathetic, showing both his stubbornness and his charm, he makes us feel what it is like to have all certainty taken away like a rug from under the feet. Claire Skinner is also excellent as the anxious Anne, wanting the best for André's welfare but under increasing strain to keep her own life together, as she struggles to cope with the man who is becoming less and less like her father.

The Father is on at the Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7JR, until 20 June. Tickets are £12–£28. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

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Last Updated 13 May 2015