Moving study of man's rage against the dying of the light
The Father, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, until March 23.
Andre has lost his watch. Again. It keeps going missing and he keeps blaming somebody else for its absence from his wrist, be it his daughter or his day-time carer.
Anyone apart from himself. Meanwhile, the old-fashioned clock on the top shelf of the bookcase is another reminder that time is passing. And with each passing day Andre’s descent into dementia becomes more apparent.
Particularly for his daughter Anne, it would seem – his “least favourite daughter” as he stresses on more than one occasion.
And, yes, Anne is there to hear him say it. Or is she? Is Andre living with her and her partner Pierre at their minimalist apartment in Paris? Or has she gone to live in London with another man? And what has happened to the other daughter, Elise? Is she dead or is she simply keeping her distance from the father who apparently adores her? It’s all very confusing. But then confusion is the essence of dementia and Florian Zeller’s play explores it with a Lear-like bleakness, a Pinteresque edginess and a few welcome flashes of humour.
There are times when the Andre of old asserts himself. His charm and authority return, only to disappear in an instant. He is no longer capable of asserting that authority and it evaporates into menace and empty threat as his frustration is laid bare in a way that is both revealing and touching.
Keith Railton (pictured above) gives an extraordinary performance in the central role, remembering lines that Andre would forget in an instant and giving us a clear insight into what it is like to be a human being losing his own clarity of thought and understanding.
The other members of the cast are hard to fault, be it Cathryn Bowler as Anne (pictured) struggling with her father’s decline, Hugh Sorrill capturing Pierre’s pent-up frustration or Pete Gillam as a shadowy threat to Andre, physically as well as mentally.
Under John Ruscoe’s direction, Simon Sharpe’s set design and some ingenious use of lighting and music, we are given a sense of a man whose world has shrunk to the point where he is a child again.
Another line from Shakespeare comes to mind. As Prospero put it in The Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little lives are rounded with a sleep”. Towering central performance by Railton but a rock-solid team effort.
Life for this elderly titular figure is a constant nightmare of confusion.He is surrounded by walls that are forever closing in, people with changing faces, sounds and images that make no sense.
A virtual reality of the most terrifying proportions. It is a play about dementia – or perhaps some other form ofAlzheimer’s. No one really knows. But the given facts of a domestic drama are starkly presented in a production that pulls no punches and seeks no compromise.
At the centre of it all is a towering performance by Keith Railton as Andre, living a shadowy existence with a daughter he frequently berates while bemoaning the absence of another daughter and desperately trying to pinpoint what is real in the fog-bound chaos of his mind.
Florian Zeller’s award-winning French drama, with nothing lost in a fine translation by Christopher Hampton, gives us a man of many moods. He charms, he cajoles, he theatens, he rages.
And in the play’s most agonising scene, he falls back into a sobbing childhood,all amazingly illuminated in Railton’s heart-felt portrayal. The whole is shaped and magnified by John Ruscoe’s unflinching direction which heightens the ongoing sense of paranoia with contrasting light and shade and claustrophobic images of room-to-room internment.
An overall tight rein ensures that despite the commanding nature ofthe central character, it emerges as a rock-solid team effort, with finely committed performances by the rest of the cast, notably Cathryn Bowler’s verbally-savaged daughter who refuses to wilt under her father’s contemptuous tongue. It’s a harrowing experience indeed but through the skill of approach by everyone involved, there are flashes of pungent humour to ease the demanding passage of the piece. Make no mistake, though. This is highly sensitive material and while on the one hand it can be seen as upsetting, it can also shed some preliminary light on the twisting turns of an addled mind. Bravo for a local theatre company ready to state the case so emphatically.
For tickets go to: www.criteriontheatre.co.uk