Already much-acclaimed in London and elsewhere, The Father centres around the crumbling world of Andre, who is slowly suffering the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease. It’s easy to understand why actor Kenneth Cranham earned an Olivier award for this role; through his impeccable performance, we watch the dismantling of not just Andre’s relationship with his daughter, but of the world as he knew it and all it will become.
With clever direction from James Macdonald, and a sparse but brightly-lit set, the experience is less like watching a play and more as though we are part of a live documentary. The audience become almost voyeuristic; with delusion and hallucination rife throughout the action, our confusion about exactly what we’re seeing goes some way towards mirroring the central character’s. The writing draws us in, and gradually I realised that we’re not supposed to know what is true and what isn't – just as Andre doesn't, by the end. With no control over what is happening, the truth of his character is disappearing too.
Cranham was truly wonderful in the lead role, perfectly displaying all the familiar symptoms of the disease. I liked the continuous play on his missing watch, and the passing of time that literally waits for no man. At first he is caustic to those around him – but with perfect timing, we witness the emergence of a scared little boy who can hide no longer. His appearance in pyjamas captured such heart-rending vulnerability that I half-expected to see him clutching a teddy bear.
I particularly liked the relationship between Andre and his young carer, Laura (Jade Williams). The affiliation between the two, and their lightly joking banter, clearly allow the ageing man to feel vital and alive for a while. And it made me consider how his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) must feel, witnessing this levity while having to deal with the darker side of her father's behaviour. It’s a thought-provoking backdrop for the choices that we all have to make in life, between duty and truth to your own heart.
Continuing the theme of a confusing world, the scene changes are stark, the music deliberately jarring. Bit by bit the set is dismantled, stripping away everything Andre knows and feels comfort and safety within. There is, of course, no happy ending – but there’s a glimmer of hope, with the compassion showed by the nurse (Rebecca Charles) while holding of the old man offering faith that there will one day be someone there to do the same for all of us.
Never too indulgent, and always with the attention to detail focused on the personal story, the play builds towards a sadly inevitable and profoundly moving conclusion. Focusing on a sensitive and current subject, this skilful piece of writing by Florian Zeller deserves all the accolades it gets. And it will surely resonate with many in the audience, as the disease takes a tragic grip on families everywhere. Highly recommended.