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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.

The father poster

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’.

The father Claire Skinner Kenneth Cranham

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.

A bridge over troubled motors

The M4 is a constant looming presence on the Cotswold Way.   Walking from the north, you start off 80 miles or so away from it, but you always know that it’s there in-between you and Bath.  At some point it has to be crossed.

The M4 heading west near Tormarton  © Copyright Dr Duncan Pepper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The M4 heading west near Tormarton
© Copyright Dr Duncan Pepper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Alice’s blisters have (just about) healed enough for her to start again on her Cotswold Way Challenge and I joined her again this week for another section, as she approached the motorway. You first hear it as you reach the churchyard at Old Sodbury. It’s still three or four miles away, but the elevated position of the church, which gives it a great view, seems to help the sound to travel there. After that you’re into more of a dip as you cross Dodington Park and the sound fades away, but not for long.

The trail crosses the A46 and heads east to Tormarton to avoid the motorway junction and find a quieter bridge over the M4.   There’s still an uncomfortable section walking along quite a busy road that has no pavement either side, before the path turns and heads back west.  For almost two miles you’re walking roughly parallel to the motorway and only a short distance away from it, with the constant roar of traffic from both the M4 and the A46.   It must be about the least attractive bit of the Cotswold Way (although the dreadful fly-tipping mess of the old quarries above Cheltenham probably pips it).

So I hereby launch the campaign for a new pedestrian footbridge over the M4.  I’d suggest a position just west of the A46, roughly by Springs Farm, where the motorway is still in a cutting, before falling away down what remains of the Cotswold escarpment at this point.   It could be a very striking position for a bridge, and brings to mind the elegant pedestrian bridge that carries the Pennine Way over the M62.   I hear that a new garden footbridge is planned for the Thames in London that is likely to cost 170 million pounds.    A bridge over the M4 for the Cotswold Way might not be as high profile as that, but it could surely be built from the small change left over.

The M62 Pennine Way footbridge  © Copyright George Tod and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The M62 Pennine Way footbridge
© Copyright George Tod and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Meanwhile Alice keeps heading on southwards.  Almost Bath time.