It isn’t easy representing old age on stage. In his recent one man national tour, even the eighty year old Sir Ian McKellen bemoaned his schoolboy self’s portrayal of an octogenarian. However, this play illustrates such important issues of dementia and elderly care that it is worth laying down such a challenge to an actor.
A powerful and important choice of story, despite the difficulties faced in the staging
French director and dramatist Florian Zeller created his play The Father to explore the impact of dementia on family life. The play, translated into English by Christopher Hampton and later turned into a film with Sir Anthony Hopkins, explores the life of the aging Andre, who is convinced that his daughter is seeking to take away his flat as he falls into a growing mist of dementia.
In this production, pupils from the King’s School, Chester take on the challenges of directing, performing and teching the show. It's presented on a fixed set depicting three different areas, with nothing moving throughout the play. This adds an inflexibility to the staging and confines action to one third of the stage at any point. A story like this calls for the elderly man to be centred in the staging, and the father is too often pushed to the side. An interesting social commentary on those with dementia, perhaps, but it doesn’t facilitate an effective staging.
Freddie Spillane takes on the enormous challenge of presenting the father, immensely tough for an eighteen year old performer. Spillane is clearly a capable actor but struggles with this role, his characterisation bearing the hallmarks of a teenager rather than a man in his later years. He is not helped by a costuming that sees him with jet black hair and tartan pyjama bottoms, rather than the dowdy pyjamas, dressing gown or walking aid that might be expected in this role. Evie Rutt is more convincing playing the daughter, arguably a less challenging role, and the rest of the six strong cast work hard in support.
Pupil Ted Toovey directed this play at the school in December and appears here to be managing the tech. Juggling all this must be immensely difficult, and how impressive to be doing it at all, but leaving the house lights on throughout this performance is a mistake. It means that the audience are left in the light throughout, with blackouts only partially effective and a latecomer distracting from critical early scenes.
At the end of the play, Toovey asks the audience to contribute to fundraising for Dementia UK, and this is enormously praiseworthy as an aspiration. The play carries forward an important tale and certainly justifies his appeal, to which I hope sincerely that audiences will respond. It was a powerful and important choice of story, despite the difficulties faced in the staging.