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The Father

by on 16 September 2019

Through a Glass Darkly

The Father

by Florian Zeller

Richmond Shakespeare Society, Mary Wallace Theatre until 21st September

Florian Zeller’s The Father is about an elderly man descending into dementia. Understandably this is not the most attractive of opening lines, nor is dementia as subject matter likely to have audiences rushing for tickets, which is a shame as RSS’s current production of this clever play is well worth a look.


To begin with, the staging is highly effective. Portraying dementia on a stage relies upon a skilled set designer and an efficient crew. Set Designer Mike Read and the RSS crew fulfilled this brief to a high standard. The set, a white-ish room with basic furniture, the walls delineated by wispy strips of cloth was managed and changed efficiently, many times by a brisk, silent crew (not named in the programme other than under the headings of ASMs and set constructors). This set, together with Paul Nicholson’s lighting and Wayland Booth’s sound, echoed the mind of an elderly man losing chunks of his life on a daily basis. Visually the production was striking, the bright light of the scenes in which people talk, contrasted with the softer, total black indicating a scene’s end, and then the dim, flickering while changes took place sometimes looked like an old film. Crucially though, it made you think of confusion without actually confusing you – clever.

Father6The short description of what actually goes on over the next ninety minutes, usual in most reviews, would perhaps spoil the piece for a new audience. Suffice to say, events are viewed solely from Andre, the father’s, point of view. Andre is cared for by his daughter Anne, apparently in his flat in Paris. However, nothing is straightforward. Andre is not necessarily where he thinks he is. Or is he? Anne may not be Anne. She may or may not be married and Andre is unclear as to which man might be her husband. Zeller shows us the disintegration of the father but also the strain on the people who love him, but who must carry on their lives while trying to care for him. There is humour here too, gentle and sometimes poignant but present. As Andre flirts with his new carer, we have glimpses of the man he was.

Chris Haddock’s performance as Andre must have connected with anyone who has had dealings with dementia. Characters like Andre, who are not so much individuals as representatives of something, could be oversimplified or bland. Chris Haddock however, played an endearing, flirtatious and witty version of Andre, which made his personal losses so much more affecting.

Also connecting with the audience was Lynne Harrison as Andre’s daughter Anne. Her personal life, stuck semi-permanently between a rock and a hard place while she tried to do the right thing for the father she loved, struck chords you could almost hear. Anne was any one of us, not perfectly patient but doing her best. She drew a natural sympathy as her father began to lose his automatic self-control about which of his daughters he preferred.

The supporting cast provided strong back up. Laura-May Hassan was the type of carer we have all met and the apparently amiable Peter Easterbrook was quite frightening in a suitably unexpected way.

There were a couple of slightly odd elements to the acting, possibly because of direction. It is challenging to play characters who are not necessarily what they appear to be, in a play that is about confusion. That said, it was unclear whether Lizzie Williams as the nurse, towards the end, was directed to deliver certain lines as she did or whether that was her chosen approach to the moment. Perhaps it was an intended nuance I missed but it seemed slightly out of step. Similarly Luciano Dodero, as Pierre, did not seem at ease with the character-type he was playing. These are small distractions though and they did not detract from the piece as a whole.

Since being lucky enough to see Still Alice last year at Richmond, I have found drama about dementia to be surprisingly absorbing, and often comforting. I couldn’t honestly describe The Father as comforting but I would definitely recommend it and RSS should be proud of the job they have done with this production.

Eleanor Lewis
September 2019

Photography by Timeline Photos

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