I'm lucky that I've had no first hand experience of the impact of the disease looked at in
A mind-blowing literal theatrical demonstration of how it may feel when one's mind has actually seemed to have been 'blown'
Having originated in the UK at Bath and then run for a couple of months at The Wyndhams at the end of 2015, Florian Zeller's play (translated expertly here in a way that maintains the broken sentences, repetition and Pinter-style silences with a natural conversive English by Christopher Hampton) is now at the Duke of York's for another limited run. This should keep happening – it's too powerful a piece to be away from a West End stage for long but probably also never likely to get a longer-term residence as the subject matter is less appealing for the tourists to fill it for a longer time.
Explaining too much of the story is both unimportant and detracts from the point and power of the piece. We start in a simple 'white box' setting filled with the unremarkable and unmemorable furnishings of what we ascertain to be Andre's flat – where we get an inkling of the early stages of dementia during the awkward conversation he has with his daughter Anne. They are talking about 'things getting worse' and 'changes needing to be made' since his recent altercation with his last nurse ("I hit her with a curtain pole? She stole my watch" - he says exasperatedly) and Anne's upcoming move to London that will leave him alone in Paris ("It never stops raining in London" he implores, whilst asking why his other – favourite – daughter never visits). And from there on, any expected structured storyline in which we could find comfort, not only disappears, but is disjointed and throws us back and forth as though we are living his confusion for ourselves.
We start to wonder if it actually was his daughter in the first scene as another actress appears to play the role and refutes the previous conversation. The move to London was just in his mind – or was it? The current boyfriend of Anne appears (also played by two actors) - or is he her husband? or the ex-partner? – and may hate Andre … or be jealous of him… or want to support him… or actually strike him.
And whose flat is he actually in anyway? As the play progresses, each scene – some revised versions of what we've (possibly) seen before, some lasting only seconds – is broken by a spluttering sparkling light framing the stage, and piano music (possibly Bach) that increasingly scratches and breaks like an old favourite, overplayed record, as the illness gets more deteriorating. And slowly – almost unnoticeably at first – ornaments, lighting and furniture all start to disappear from the set.
It all adds up to be a rather disarming experience but, where I recently challenged Churchill's Escaped Alone at the Royal Court for using similarly disarming tricks, here we are far from feeling alienated. Sure, we may be confused at times, but the impact couldn't be more different, making us a part of the suffering rather than feeling pushed away from it.
Kenneth Cranham reprises his performance of Andre (for which he won the Critics Circle Award for Best Actor 2015) and whilst it may take a little while to warm to his underplayed and disjointed delivery, that's more because you don't realise how his behaviour will unfold. As you become more and more a part of his journey and experiences, so you believe in his understated exasperation that makes it difficult for him to find the right words. More so as it's never mawkish – when he takes the mickey out of "the infirm" (with a possibly politically incorrect impression of the "ughs-ughs") he's actually very funny. When he gets frustrated with other people challenging his own memories ("I get the feeling you sometimes suffer from memory loss" he tells his daughter), he does it so that we laugh before we feel guilty for doing so. We don't want to laugh at him, but with him. And his masterful playing with the delivery of the phrases mentioned earlier – of it always raining in London and of his 'favourite daughter' which are repeated many times throughout the play– manages to convey completely different meaning to evoke laughter through to tears with the same lines.
Amanda Drew as daughter Anne gives an understated performance that is a buffer to his erratic ways – but we are clearly in his mind's story rather than hers. Her brief monologue does seem a little out of place in terms of structure and delivery but helps to pave the way for more confusion later and she is at her best when doing the smallest things in the smallest ways – taking her first sip of alcohol in years, saying simply that "it's good wine", tells us much about her need to be supported in the situation with just a slump in her body and the few words uttered.
It all makes for a theatrical masterpiece that combines every visual, structural and casting element to involve the audience in an experience that teaches you more about what it must be like to live with the disease than if it was to play out as a didactic lecture or with a more usual narrative storyline. The supporting cast equally display their belief in the multiple smaller roles and the staging itself is close to being the hero of the show. But it's Cranham who deserves the most plaudits for what must be the best, simplest and at times tiniest performance of his career. I may be wrong to assume it will transfer again – especially with him remaining in the title role – so don't miss out on this run. It's a cliché to say that it will make you laugh and cry at times (as theatre really should, but rarely does) but it will do so in a way that makes it a theatrical journey that you need to go on and couldn't be experienced in any other medium.