The Height of the Storm at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0DA booking until 1 December 2018. Running time 1 hour 20 minutes with no interval. Production images by Hugo Glendinning. For more information and tickets please visit the website.
Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm, translated by Christopher Hampton and direct from Theatre Royal Bath is far from the exiting new play it’s being billed as. It’s a slow-burning piece centring around a couple who have been married for decades and are facing old age and the inevitability of one of them being left behind. Inspired by an elderly couple Zeller once observed walking down the street, holding onto each other as if one, this play examines the vulnerability of human need.
Directed by Jonathan Kent, all the action (if you can call it that) takes place in the French kitchen of lauded writer André (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife Madeleine (Eileen Atkins), with a ravishingly detailed set designed by Anthony Ward featuring the quintessential family table, tall bookcases with haphazardly stacked books and files, along with a vegetable trolley ready for Madeleine to start cooking her famous mushroom omelette. Groan. I guess this play can quite literally be termed a storm in a teacup or a kitchen sink drama and may or may not be to everyone’s taste. For my palate it was decidedly under-seasoned.
The dazzlingly natural and engaging Atkins, who can almost salvage watching paint drying, spends most of her time peeling mushrooms for a lunch we never see and has assured André that she will never leave his side – although the audience soon question if she is really there at all. Yes, André talks to her, but he also appears to be suffering from dementia. Some days are just a fog. A mysterious bouquet arrives without a card and his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) raises the subject of an estate agent coming over to view the property. Has Madeleine died only for Andre to be too broken to comprehend life without her? Scenes are fragmentary and purposefully confusing in a failed attempt at Pinter-esque intellectual befuddlement, although in this case the characters don’t possess enough character or substance for us to invest in them.
Atkins is the mother who won’t be lectured by her daughters, keen to encourage her to put André in a home. They get on just fine she claims, confessing to André that she likes Anne and Elise (Anna Madeley) to visit but prefers it when it’s just the two of them. Aside from the cruel deterioration of the mind and the tricks the past and present play, The Height of the Storm also touches upon secrets that have a habit of coming to the surface when children begin looking through old diaries and papers, thus discovering that their parent’s fifty-year relationship wasn’t nearly as straightforward, loving and loyal as they’d been led to believe. André’s diaries are indeed a revelation to Anne and suggest that he has an illegitimate son, something backed up by the reappearance of his ‘woman friend’ (Lucy Cohu) who claims to have known André way back; a colourful story that ramps up the family tension when Madeleine innocently invites her around for tea in the hope that her husband will delight in recalling his hey day.
Where the 2015 Theatre Royal Bath production of Zeller’s, The Father, starring Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner, succeeded with bells on, this play struggles. In the attempt to be naturalistic, the script is riddled with trite remarks and observations, from Pryce staring vacantly out of a window, to suggestions of poisonous mushrooms and cringe-worthy mother and daughter relationship advice. And isn’t the fact that there was a storm the night before the drama all rather clichéd? We cannot excuse unoriginal writing simply because it’s a French translation. The Height of the Storm is so achingly tedious that the beauty of the acting, delivered by two legendary thespians who never disappoint, still can’t redeem this from being a dull evening of theatre without the slightest electrical spark other than when Pryce looses his rag or Atkins shouts ‘fuck off!’. I was glad to.