The Father at Theatre Royal, Bath
Spoiler alert – this review contains significant plot and production details, which you might prefer not to know until after you’ve seen the play. If you have a chance though, do go to see it.
This is not at all a comfortable play. You simply never know quite what’s going on. Almost all the basic details of the situation laid out in the opening scene, are contradicted in later scenes and many of the contradictions are never resolved. We don’t know whose flat we’re in, whether the daughter is in London or in Paris, whether she’s married or divorced, whether her husband / partner is sympathetic or menacing, what has happened to a second daughter, and so on. The same roles are played by different actors in different scenes. so we don’t even fully get a grip on who’s who. Time is a fairly slippery concept too as scenes are interrupted or replayed, so we never really have a full grasp of time, place or person – fairly basic concepts in theatre. The music between scenes becomes increasingly fractured and the furnishings gradually disappear from the set.
The aim of all this disorientation is to show life from the point of view of the father, who is gradually slipping into dementia and reverting to childhood. He’s not sure who his daughter is, who the carer is, or where he is. Everything keeps changing to the point that he questions everyone else’s sanity as much as his own. It’s a convincing performance from Kenneth Cranham as the father, who wanders around the stage in pyjamas a lot of the time, making little sense of what’s going on, before ending up in a hospital bed, desperately calling out for his mummy. Claire Skinnner plays his daughter (for most of the play!), which inevitably brought to mind the same actress trying to deal with both an ageing father and young children in ‘Outnumbered’, as well as some of the parallels with ‘King Lear’.
In a Question and Answer session with the cast after the performance, one audience member suggested that absence of love was the tragedy of the play, but that didn’t feel right to me. There was little doubting the love that Claire Skinner showed in her portrayal of the daughter, but love isn’t always enough in the tragedy of old age. As I’ve seen with my own parents and others, the role of carer can be particularly thankless and another questioner almost broke down as she thanked the cast for their sympathetic portrayal of this. But in the end that wasn’t really the point either. This was about the tragedy of the parent, through whose eyes we were being asked to experience it, rather than that of the carer. It succeeded brilliantly in portraying that, leaving all of us just a little bit more nervous about what might be to come, particularly those of us who are maybe closer to the high risk age than we might like to imagine.