Alzheimer’s disease is a cruel equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a prime minister, Hollywood icon or, indeed my mother (and mother-in-law). It strikes without mercy and condemns its victims to death, robbing them of any dignity and us of our loved ones.
Kenneth Cranham’s astonishing performance as a pensioner suffering from dementia, in Florian Zeller’s compelling drama, The Father, left me choking back tears.
After winning public and critical acclaim in the West End it is now touring the UK and I caught up with it last night at Richmond Theatre where it is playing all week.
Cranham said he was surprised the role won him the Best Actor award at this year’s Oliviers but his is a magnificent, tour-de-force, performance that is funny, poignant, moving, and tragic.
With an increasingly ageing population it is likely that you have either personal experience of the condition or know of someone who suffers from this horrible disease. Perhaps it is this familiarity with dementia that touches a chord with audiences.
Our empathy is with André’s daughter Anne, as she struggles to cope with her father’s failing health. Torn between her lover and the demands of her awkward, uncompromising father, she’s having nightmares about strangling her dad and putting an end to everyone’s pain.
Christopher Hampton has done a superb job, as always, of translating Zeller’s work from the original French and the play’s staging does the rest. Director James Macdonald, aided by Guy Hoare’s stunning, disorientating lighting design (and sound by Christopher Shutt), throws us off kilter every few minutes.
Scene changes plunge the stage into darkness, accompanied by glaring lights and frequently discordant music. When the play resumes the set has changed (well done the speedy backstage staff!), usually with furniture taken away, like an eccentric game of musical chairs.
But it gives theatre-goers a feeling of what alzheimer’s is like. You can’t trust what you see, hear or remember. Faces are unfamiliar, names are forgotten, watches are put down and stolen by unseen hands. Reality doesn’t exist.
Everything you thought you knew is no more. Everything you knew to be certain is now open to question. It must be absolutely terrifying. You’re on a rollercoaster and there’s no chance to get off.
Cranham’s André is fiercely independent. He was an engineer and had his own flat. Intelligent, now belligerent, he refuses offers of help and has succeeded in driving away a series of carers.
“I don’t need help. I don’t need anyone!” He rages. But it’s not an entirely sober story. There are moments of pure lightness and fun in this deeply harrowing and tragic tale.
André is the master of the quick retort and we laugh at his confusion, usually involving him losing his watch and failing to recognise people.
I don’t know what it is about time – and timepieces – but sufferers become obsessed. Perhaps they know that time is slipping away as more of their brain clocks off and shuts down.
He is similarly baffled why his flat is emptying itself until all that is left, like the man himself, a blank canvas.
The final scene, played out in a hospital, is horrible to watch but it’s one of the most powerful and absorbing performances I have seen. It brought back, for me, so many terrible memories.
Amanda Drew gives an engrossing and sensitive turn as Anne. She spends most of the performance walking on egg-shells, the worry etched on her face. She can’t do right for doing wrong. She’s consumed by guilt for wanting to be with her new partner instead of her irascible, increasingly unstable, father. We’ve all been there.
The production cleverly uses its supporting cast to play duplicate roles – at least in André’s mind. One minute he sees Amanda Drew as Anne and the next it’s Rebecca Charles – or is she the carer? Or is that Jade Williams? Brian Doherty may be Pierre, Anne’s lover, or it could be Daniel Flynn.
A remarkable drama with an unforgettable central performance from Kenneth Cranham. Don’t miss it.
Remaining 2016 tour dates
April 11- 16, Richmond Theatre April 18-23, Theatre Royal Newcastle April 25-30, Brighton Theatre Royal May 2-7, Birmingham Rep May 9-14, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
The Father, starring Olivier Best Actor Kenneth Cranham as dementia sufferer André, is a remarkable drama with an unforgettable central performance. Don’t miss it.