Proof, Arts Theatre, London

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On its London première in 2002, David Auburn’s play was overshadowed by its casting: for Catherine, the hermit-like 25-year-old worried that she may have inherited her late father’s schizophrenia as well as his mathematical genius, was played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Much was made at the time of the sudden fashionability of maths as a dramatic topic, citing also Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (in which it took the form of quantum theory). Auburn’s play, in spite of its Pulitzer and Tony awards, is not in the same league. It riffs agreeably on the different senses of that title word: the arcane mathematical proof that Catherine claims to have formulated, the forensic proof that her disbelieving sister and her father’s former student Hal require from her of her authorship, and the tension between the hard, fixed values in maths and the fluidity of human relationships, of proof versus trust. (It slips by almost unnoticed when Hal protests to Catherine, “I am trying to correct things”, as if life were a set of equations.) But mathematics is just clothing draped over the sentimental curves of the body of the play.

It would be invidious to compare Sally Oliver’s performance with Paltrow’s. What is worth noting is that she does not seem nearly as disturbed as Catherine must surely be, even if that is less than she believes – a little grouchy and agoraphobic, perhaps, but much of the time Aislinn Sands as sister Claire seems more highly strung than Oliver’s Catherine. (Then again, Terence Booth as father Robert in flashbacks shows few signs of being, in his own word, “bughouse”.) In many ways Neal Foster as Hal gets the best of the deal, since his task is principally to field the other three rather than establish a firm character for himself.

John Harrison’s production for the Birmingham Stage Company, visiting London from its base at that city’s Old Rep Theatre, is diligent and uncontroversial (although the use of Norman Coates’s back-porch set is confusing, as characters counter-intuitively enter from and exit “indoors”). But, in marrying maths to matters of the heart and mind, the play ends up telling us nothing much about any of them.

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