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The Father by Florian Zeller at the Mary Wallace Theatre

The FatherAndré (Chris Haddock), so his daughter Anne’s (Lynne Harrison) new lover, Pierre (Luciano Dodero) tells Anne – and thus the audience – is ‘ill’. It is, sadly, not uncommon to see an older person gradually losing their critical faculties – doddery and senile characters who are made fun of are still to be found in theatrical productions (elsewhere, of course). The Father is almost too well-constructed, in that one doesn’t need to have dementia to find the storyline difficult to follow in places. What really happens? What is the true version of events? Who actually said what to whom?

Has Anne moved from Paris to London or not? And why, if André is obsessed with timekeeping, does he keep misplacing his beloved watch? The show’s scenes aren’t (necessarily) presented in chronological order, which adds to the puzzlement. It’s tempting to make a comparison to the works of Harold Pinter, especially in a show with prolonged pauses thrown in for dramatic effect.

The set was far from cluttered to begin with, though it is gradually emptied during the various scene changes. This partly sets up a scene in Anne’s minimalist apartment, but the metaphor is as obvious as a stop sign. André’s mind is being cleared until he will reach the point where he will struggle to recall who he himself is. The play avoids over-sentimentality by frequent references to the reality of life – Anne’s full-time employment, the possibility of André being placed in a care facility, a potential nurse coming around with a view to being André’s regular source of help.

The delivery of the play’s lines in this production is always crystal clear but it is a little wooden in places. But even this might be deliberate: unconvincing encouragements from a nurse (Lizzie Williams) to André could be interpreted as a healthcare professional just going through the motions, as though suggesting that whether André is cooperative or not makes no difference to her salary, and therefore she is not ultimately overly concerned about whether, for example, he takes a “little blue pill” or refuses to do so.

Towards the end of the evening, André decides, despite being a man of pensionable age, that he wants “my mummy”, adding, “I want to go home”. I recall an older man saying very nearly those exact words, repeatedly and regularly, when I was admitted to hospital more than fifteen years ago – I was promptly shifted out of the ‘acute admissions ward’ and into what is known as a ‘general medicine ward’, ostensibly so I wouldn’t have to take a sleeping tablet that night. Anyway, whether on stage or in hospital for real, it’s a harrowing and desperate cry for help, and I suppose you could say I was ‘triggered’ by hearing it again.

It’s a rare occasion when repeated lines are compelling rather than dull, but because there is a need to try to piece the narrative together in one’s mind for it to form a cohesive whole, it works here: and it suits the relatively intimate space of the Mary Wallace Theatre more than it did the Wyndham’s Theatre, where I saw a different production of this play in 2015. A deeply moving and poignant production. I hope it is not too cruel to call it memorable as well.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Plunging into the mind of a man whose grasp on reality is gradually fading. Is André living in his own flat or that of his daughter Anne? Has the carer stolen his watch? Is his daughter married or was she divorced five years ago? Heartbreak and black humour combine in this moving drama by prize-winning playwright Florian Zeller.

by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by:
Saturday 14th to Saturday 21st September 2019
Mary Wallace Theatre
Embankment, Twickenham, TW1 3DU


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