(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 17 September)
Who suffers the most when a once-active – both physically and intellectually – person is afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease? Is it the actual sufferer? Or the family? Is it those outside the immediate family circle who care for the patient? That’s the framework for Florian Zeller’s 2014 play Le père, now translated by Christopher Hampton as The Father and premièred at the Cambridge Arts theatre before transferring to the West End.
The central character is André, a widower who lives alone; one daughter Anne, who still lives in Paris but hopes to move to London with the new man in her life, does everything she can to help him maintain both his dignity and independence. The other daughter Elise, the recipient of a disproportionate degree of affection, is reportedly abroad, though we learn gradually that she died in a accident many years previously.
What Zeller is concerned for us the audience to understand and accept as an active part of this particular theatre-going experience is the dislocation of time and place which is a by-product of Alzheimer’s. We need to concentrate as the sequence of scenes introduces Anne, carer Laura, a medical assessor and Anne former husband.
Director James Macdonald keeps the action moving at a brisk pace; the whole staging is double-framed – first of all by Guy Hoare’s border of white lights which boxes in the acting area of set designer Miriam Buether. Sound designer Christopher Shutt uses the precision of baroque keyboard sonatas broken without warning or regularity by a scratch or needle slip.
Central to it all is André himself. It’s a difficult rôle for any actor as we feel both sympathy for and irritation with the character as he unwittingly comes close to wrecking his daughter’s life. Kenneth Cranham gives a towering performance of a once-strong man crumbling into hostile and destructive senility; his curtain-call ovation is well deserved.
Claire Skinner is Anne, the daughter who is naturally so reluctant to consign her father to a nursing-home, for all the strain which his care is putting on her relationships at home and at work. You believe in her utterly and reach out in sympathetic understanding.
Then there’s Pierre, the husband she is/has discarded. Nicholas Gleaves doesn’t soften his harshness to wards the father-in-law he sees as partly responsible for the end of his marriage. The scene in which he slaps André’s face hits home as it should; we condemn the blow but understand why it happens.
Kirsty Oswald makes Laura as bubbly as she should be; André likens her to Elise, to whom he refers in brutal comparison with Anne at regular intervals. The end of the play, which is both a resolution for a situation grown impossible, is intensely moving. Anyone who has ever known an Alzheimer’s sufferer as the disease inexorably accelerates will know the helplessness of even the closest and most sympathetic bystander. There, but for the grace of God…
The Father runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 26 September.