The Father by French playwright Florian Zeller won the 2014 Molière award for France’s best play and was translated into English by Christopher Hampton. It recently transferred to the West End following a highly acclaimed in-house season at the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio last year and Kenneth Cranham reprises his role as the eponymous ‘father’, Andre, who is suffering from an Alzheimer’s-type condition and from whose perspective the play is largely angled.
Directed by James Macdonald, Cranham leads the cast of six confidently, with he and Claire Skinner, who plays his daughter Anne, the only members of the ensemble who don’t swap roles – the idea being to illustrate how confusing life becomes for Andre when members of his own family seem like strangers and perhaps most cleverly of all, even the audience aren’t initially sure if Andre was a tap dancer or an engineer, his daughter is married or divorced, wants to move to London (where he informs her it will rain all the time) or whether it is he or she who owns the flat in Paris where most of the action takes place. If you feel bewildered within the first fifteen minutes, that’s exactly how you’re meant to feel.
With a set design by Miriam Buether which enhances the fly-on-the-wall and highly personal nature of the play, the fact that there is no interval helps the audience become increasingly engrossed with the story. Through a series of fast moving snapshot scenes including flashbacks, things eventually become clearer, but the real focus is the very human story of the despair and indignity Andre experiences as he struggles to make sense of the world and people around him. It also encourages you to reflect how much you too might one day have to rely on the patience and kindness of family.
On the flip side, many of us will have to care for an elderly relative with a debilitating memory-loss condition and through Anne we consider the impact this understandably has on other relationships. But whilst we can empathise with her character, Nicholas Gleaves as Anne’s partner/husband, Pierre, is an extremely unsympathetic figure who tests her conscience by encouraging her to have her father placed in a nursing home so that they can carry on with their lives and go on holiday. It makes us ask ourselves how much we should expect our children to sacrifice their own lives in order to care for us and at what point they can justifiably hand over our care to outsiders.
Is this the role of Cranham’s career? It could well be. He certainly puts in a weighty and poignant performance which exudes sensitivity for what is a difficult subject matter, and he and Skinner make the most of their utterly convincing rapport as father and daughter. In turn they are supported by Gleaves and Jim Sturgeon who both alternate between the role of Anne’s husband or boyfriend, with Rebecca Charles first appearing as a carer and later a nurse. Kirsty Oswald also puts in a good performance as the pretty nurse Laura whose patronising tone towards Andre succeeds in making the audience cringe.
The Father is an intelligent work which calls for intelligent actors who can draw out the tragicomic elements of the script to full effect. It’s the kind of play that will live with you long after you leave the theatre and let’s hope it will make us all kinder and more considerate to our relatives. There’s no easy answer to caring for an Alzeimer’s disease sufferer and ultimately it’s impossible not to empathise with father and daughter, for they are both victims of a cruel disease which robs Andre of his mind and Anne of a dad who recognises her.
The Father at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, until 21st November 2015. Running time approximately 1 hour 25 minutes. For more information and tickets visit the website.