Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham
Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham © Simon Annand

It starts lightheartedly. In a smart Paris flat, octogenarian André is having a bit of a tiff with his daughter Anne. She’s exasperated because he has alienated his latest carer; he is grouchy because he believes his watch has been stolen. Familiar territory, probably, to many in the audience — prickly, tricky, but funny. Cut to the next scene and we await developments. Here’s André. But wait, who’s this? Someone who calls herself Anne, but has a different face. And why does this man claim to be her husband when earlier she was single? Where are we? Is this before or after the previous scene?

The brilliance of Florian Zeller’s play, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, is that it doesn’t just show us the impact of dementia, it uses the nature of theatre to put us in the same boat as André. Every time we think we have a grip of what is happening, something slips slightly: a piece of furniture, a plot detail, the time of day, the place. Characters merge, change, time spools back and forth. Just as André loses the plot, so do we, until we are thoroughly disorientated. Even once we grasp this, we still try to piece things together — just as André does. It is simple, very clever and increasingly upsetting: this neat, understated play gives an inkling of just how terrifying it would be to have no idea where you are.

James Macdonald’s excellent, precise staging (first seen at the Theatre Royal, Bath) shifts the tone imperceptibly, while Miriam Buether’s set subtly changes from scene to scene. The laughs gradually dry up. There are echoes of King Lear and there’s a Pinteresque edge to the uncertainty — particularly in the physically threatening presence of Anne’s smooth but menacing partner (Colin Tierney) and another man (Jim Sturgeon) who — well, along with André we are never quite sure who he is. But it is in the ordinariness that the real horror lies, Zeller reminding us that, if it comes for us or our loved ones, it won’t be in the storm on the heath but in the unremarkable confines of the living room.

Claire Skinner is quietly moving as Anne, increasingly worn out, until she disappears altogether. And Kenneth Cranham is quite simply shattering as André. We see this mischievous, crusty, clever, truculent man gradually receding until he’s left, in his pyjamas, weeping, “I’m losing all my leaves.” It’s devastating.

To June 13,

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