Some plays leave you uplifted, amused and full of joy while others send you home whistling the finale’s tune. The Father at the Mission Theatre makes you doubt your own sanity with its theme of mental decline as it tells the story of the protagonist André’s descent into the twilight zone of dementia.
Played in the round with a slowly reducing set of beige furniture André (John Matthews) is as Shakespeare put it, in the seventh age of life. The ‘second childishness and mere oblivion,
sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ A condition that is frightening for the afflicted and distressing for those who care for him.
Set in a modern Parisian flat Florian Zeller’s 2014 drama The Father (Le Pere) has been twice filmed (including one with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman). It uses that tried and trusted technique of the unreliable narrator. Who do we believe? For André is increasingly confused as he tries to make sense of his world. Is he in his own apartment or is he in a home – and who are these people who insist he takes his medication? His daughter, a nurse, a carer or complete strangers? The result is to leave the audience as muddled as André is as he struggles to make sense of everything. Whether it’s where his watch is, or if he should get dressed, or even what he once did for a living.
John Matthews’s performance as André is both convincing and disturbing in director Ann Ellison’s Next Stage production of Zeller’s lucid drama as he transforms from slightly forgetful head of the household having a senior moment to a lost soul crying for his mother.
There is excellent support from Lydia Cook as his daughter Anne who keeps the action grounded as she attempts to make André understand what is happening with a polished naturalistic performance. While Tiana James as André’s social worker come carer maintained an understated and sympathetic persona as the professional dealing with someone whose world is darkening.
And André’s confusion wasn’t helped as he muddled his carer with ‘The Woman’ (a brilliant Hayley Fitton-Cook) and his son-in-law Pierre (Callum Marshall) with ‘The Man’ (Joshua Tenn) suggesting those in his life increasingly became interchangeable as names and roles eluded him. These supporting roles were of exceptional quality – as to downplay everyday people takes a deal of skill and a measure of subtlety.
When Pierre raises his hand to strike André due to his increasing frustration with the old man, we recognise that moment when understanding gives way to ‘I’ve had enough of this’ pitilessness. It also highlighted the vital work of professional carers in society as portrayed by Tiana and Hayley who must understand and never judge their charges.
Life is often a series of circles, for the British premier of the French play was at the nearby Ustinov Studio in Bath back in 2014 when Kenneth Cranham took the lead. He continued in the role when Zeller’s drama ran in the West End at the Wyndham the following year. And now there’s a chance to see the Molière awarded play back in the spa city with a cast on top form.
The play runs at the Mission Theatre, Bath, until Saturday 28th, 2023.
For tickets and more details visit http://www.missiontheatre.co.uk/
At each performance the company will be raising money for the Bath-based charity RICE – Research Institute for the Care of Older People. For details visit https://www.rice.org.uk/