The play by Frenchman Florian Zeller manages to tick every box in its depiction of the distressing decline of a man with dementia.
The story of octogenarian Andre in ‘The Father’, and his descent into dementia-induced confusion and paranoia, will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
The play was the winner of France’s highest theatrical honour, the 2014 Moliere Award for Best Play, and after being translated by Christopher Hampton and playing to packed audiences at Bath’s Theatre Royal and London’s Tricycle Theatre, it is now showing for a limited time in the West End.
It starts with Andre telling his daughter Anne that his watch has gone missing. No, not missing, it has been stolen by his latest carer (one of many in a long line of carers it turns out). Paranoia that will ring true for many carers of people with dementia.
However, it all starts to unravel as he becomes increasingly confused about the people who come to visit him. He doesn’t recognise them, but they assure him that they are his daughter or son-in-law. This is cleverly portrayed through the use of completely different actors that appear on stage for certain segments of the story. The audience is viewing his life through his eyes and the appearance of complete strangers are scary and utterly bewildering.
Like many dementia journeys, there are of course moments of comedy and lightness and it’s not bleak the whole time. He tells his latest carer that he was a tap dancer in his youth and follows it with an awkward dance shuffle, a comment to which his daughter replies frustratingly, ‘Dad, you were an engineer!’
But these moments become fewer and more tinged with pathos as the play goes on. The belly laughs that the audience were making at the beginning of the play become more restrained as they witness Andre’s sad and confusing world.
Kenneth Cranham, who plays Andre, and is probably most famous for 80s comedy Shine on Harvey Moon, perfectly conveys the scary downward spiral of dementia. Initially he is all charm, insisting he doesn’t need a carer, and it is actually Anne who seems to struggle to remember things. He is witty, but he can be cruel at times, declaring that it is his other daughter, Elise, who is his favourite, despite her not being on the scene. But by the end, he is childlike, wide-eyed and overwhelmed by what seems to be happening to him.
And you can’t help but feel for his daughter Anne, played by Claire Skinner of BBC One’s Outnumbered. She manages to convey the weariness, frustration and sadness that occurs when dealing with the challenges of caring for someone with dementia. She feels uncertain about how to manage her father, getting pulled in one direction by his needs, and in the other direction by her partner, Pierre. She feels guilty when Pierre says he needs to go into a nursing home, but helpless about what more she can do.
The staging is also very clever. The story is more or less set within one room, but the furniture gradually starts to disappear between lights out scene changes, adding to the confusion and perhaps mirroring Andre’s own disappearing memories. During these scene changes, music is played, which becomes increasingly repetitive and stuck, like a scratched record, also representing the loops and repeats within his mind.
The clever yet sensitive depiction of dementia is utterly heart-breaking. Andre says, ‘I feel as if I’m losing all of my leaves,’ and in a way, he is. His memories, his coherent thoughts and the people he knows are slowly disappearing, and the audience is with him the whole time, watching with silent desperation (and more than a few tears) as he – and they – gradually lose the plot.
The Father is showing at Wyndham’s Theatre, London until 21 November. Tickets start from £22.25 plus booking fee.
Starring Kenneth Cranham & Claire Skinner
Directed by James MacDonald
Review: Hannah Fox