by Laura Ferguson
The Father is a black comedy surrounding the titular character André (Jeffrey Thomas) and his struggles with Alzheimer’s. His daughter, Anne (Danielle Mason), tries so hard to keep her father comfortable, while simultaneously attempting to lead her own life. In every scene, André is sure he is in his own flat, except the furniture and artwork continuously changes around him, so I know that can’t be true. The disintegration and reforming of what is true and what is not becomes a constant of The Father. I am forced to examine each new truth as André states them. We are in England, no, we’re in Paris. This is André’s flat, no actually, it’s Anne’s husband, Pierre’s. Zeller’s conceptual writing style creates a piece of art that looks disjointed and confused as I walk around it, but when I strike that perfect angle, everything lines up and makes sense. Sadly, this moment never quite comes for André and he wanders, endlessly lost, even as others consistently tell him he has seen it’s true form many times.
Jeffrey Thomas’ portrayal of the curmudgeonly André is beautifully brilliant. He reminds me of an elderly Bernard Black from Black Books. Thomas is wittily harsh with matter-of-fact statements, asking where his favourite daughter Elise is while in Anne’s company and extolling his own virtues while insulting Anne further. Zeller’s script is full of remarks that elicit that hooting rumble of laughter one makes when you know you shouldn’t laugh, but you do anyway. I feel an intense chagrin not only at André’s antics, but also at myself for being so amused. Thomas is able to play these moments fantastically with a seemingly inherent sense of comedic timing. However, it is the moments where Thomas embodies fear, fright and confusion when his performance shines brightest. The way his chest heaves when he doesn’t even recognise his own daughter and his wide-eyed constrained panic have me clutching my partner’s hand in empathy.
Danielle Mason as André’s daughter Anne, brings together an exquisite culmination of frustration, love and worry. Her cradling affection for her father causes a bonding compassion in me. From the dribbles of information we see come through the show, it is obvious that André is the only family she has left. Mason portrays a sort of agonising desperation to stay close to her father and make sure he is being looked after, whether by herself or by carers. Mason’s performance captures this so well, the rigidity of her body language showing how tense Anne is, fingers perpetually trembling at her mouth. I really want to give her a hug.
Between each scene, I hear piano music. Slow, malodorous notes that at first are in sync and harmonious. As the play goes on, though, these notes become discordant and jarring. This decision by director, Ross Jolly, and sound designer, Callum Scott, helps show the disintegration of André’s mind superbly. When a record skips and repeats across the vinyl leading into the final scene, we’re given a final reminder of André’s struggles. I love Jolly’s decision to switch to a sonorous cello piece here, indicating the inevitable has happened and André is gone. Everything is implied, making the poignancy of the moment stand out.
The music is aided by the lighting designer, Marcus McShane, whose impressive light work had me tearing up near the end. The white stage lighting is brightest whenever André is on the scene, his character alert, it weakens when he becomes confused and panicked. The changes are subtle, but make all the difference to turn the staging from static to dynamic. Mottled spiderweb-like effects illuminate the walls in specific moments of André’s confusion, the lack of solidarity expressing André’s inner turmoil easily. I especially loved the fading orange light at the conclusion of the play, the colour making a sunset to end André’s twilight years. This was a touch of perfection, a lovely way to finish the show.
John Hodgkins’ transformative, temporal set design engages me in the story, intriguing me with clues for what each scene will bring. From the floor to the walls, everything has a meaning. The floor is marble-esque, a stone renowned for the cracks of colour that run through it, showing that even if André appears strong and of sound mind, the fissures are there, permanent and will not go away. I absolutely devoured the changes of artwork that happened throughout the play. They start defined with intricate details: a painting of a tree on an autumnal landscape changing to become conceptual and abstract. By the end, we see a large wall painting of ombréd muted greys in a kind of cell formation; a nod to the dissolution of André’s grey cells. The opposite side of the set displaying explosions of colour to indicate André’s personality is still as vibrant as it ever was, though.
As the final scene concludes and the cello fades out with the orange light, Bronwyn Turei’s nurse character hums a lullaby to André; his swan song. The audience breaks out into well-deserved, emphatic applause, me included, even if I’m still too choked up to whoop properly. Leaving, I feel a satisfied sort of melancholy, a heaviness on my chest, a lump in my throat and a stone weighing in my stomach. It is very filling. Sure, André could be awful at times, but he was very alive and it is sad to see him fade and dissolve into the ether, especially without his daughter to be there for him. Instead, a near stranger coddles the sobbing, confused man. It is sad because the horrors of aging happen to all of us eventually. It is sad because as much as it would be nice for André to stay with his daughter, I understand her decision to place him in a home. It is sad, because it seems so callous, so selfish, and yet, so necessary.
The Father is a wonderfully told tale of perception and interpretation through the lens of Alzheimer’s. The relationship between father, André, and daughter, Anne, creating a comforting mixture of the familial familiar; frustrating, caring, painful and loving all at once. It confronts my greatest fear, losing my mind, in such a way that I didn’t feel constantly anxious. Instead, I now have a greater understanding of how important family bonds are; how they become a lifeline when age gets the better of you. The fear hasn’t left, in fact, it’s legitimacy has been galvanised, but I enjoyed The Father so much I don’t care at all.
The Father is playing at Circa Theatre until Saturday 11 November. You can find tickets here.