Muddy Reviews: The Father, Theatre Royal, Brighton
There have been a fair few high profile plays, films and novels dealing with the frustration and tragedy of Alzheimer’s Disease from the carer’s point of view but far fewer that attempt to show what it’s like from the inside, for the sufferer.
The Father, on at Brighton’s Theatre Royal this week, does just that with a fragmented, contradictory narrative and clever staging. It’s a groundbreaking play that you will be talking and wondering about long after you have left the theatre.
The scenes, which mainly take place in an apartment, are like snapshots. Some repeat alternative, slightly altered versions of events we’ve just witnessed. The effect is enhanced by the sharp scene changes. The border around the proscenium arch flashes like a photograph being taken, or perhaps the electrical synapses in the protagonist’s damaged brain. Then, piano music with missing notes plays over the brief darkness.
The story itself, written by Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton is simple. A daughter, Anne, struggles to look after her sick dad Andre while trying to arrange a series of carers he swiftly sees off and wondering if he needs to be in a home.
He meanwhile fixates about a lost watch and believes for a while that he was a professional tap dancer. He is alternately charming, belligerent and frightened – as he feels himself psychologically and even physically threatened.
But is Anne married, divorced, single or in a new relationship? Is she planning to move from Paris, where the play is set, to London, or has she no such intention? Is that man in some scenes attached to Anne now, was he in the past, or is he entirely a figment of Andre’s imagination and why do Anne and the man look completely different in some scenes? Did she even buy that chicken for dinner?
I recently read the excellent book Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. This has a woman with Alzheimer’s as the unreliable narrator. You flounder around for a bit but ultimately, through what you hear from her daughter and others around her, come to understand the truth that she only partially knows herself.
The Father is different; the truth remains slippery. Scenes contradict each other even when the protagonist is not on the stage, making you wonder, if you are not seeing this through his eyes, then why does it still not add up? I thought I had it in the closing stages – what a nurse tells Andre must be the truth… but then I realised if it was, whole chunks of what I’d seen still had no explanation.
Throughout the play pieces of furniture from Anne’s flat (or is it Andre’s, or a bit of both?) disappear, like a sad game of musical chairs. It’s clear this symbolises Andre’s increasing disorientation but it’s a shock too for the audience because the scene changes, thanks partly to that blinding flash and partly to some deft footwork from the stagehands, are almost imperceptible in the semi darkness on stage.
Though there’s a touch of Pinter about the play, it’s not nearly as frustrating; it’s always clear at least what the play is trying to show you. There are also shades of King Lear, which is on at the Theatre Royal next week.
It’s a tough watch in places but there’s also lots of humour and thankfully not all of it arising from Andre’s confusion – there’s a pleasing bit for instance where he mimics his carer’s patronising tone. Kenneth Cranham plays an Andre you warm to and one whose intelligence is evident even as his mind unravels.
It is a hugely inventive play from a still young playwright that will surely be one of the most talked about productions of the year. Catch it while you can.
The Father is on at The Theatre Royal, Brighton until Sat 30 May. Tickets costs from £15.40 Atgtickets.com