Sunday, 30 September 2018

REVIEW: The Height of the Storm at The Theatre Royal Bath


This interesting play comes with a fine pedigree. Florian Zeller's French plays have been successfully translated for the West End by Christopher Hampton before, most notably in the highly emotional and moving play about dementia, The Father which was nominated for several awards. Director Jonathan Kent is acclaimed for his work at the Almeida Theatre, National theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre and designer Anthony Ward has worked on successful shows in the West End, National Theatre and RSC. So expectations are very high when they come together in this latest pre West End production, The Height of the storm at the Theatre Royal in Bath. 

When the curtain rises on the grand kitchen of a French countryside house with Andre staring out of the window in the half light as his daughter Anne enters we soon get a sense that not all is right in the family but the writing is perhaps too clever to follow easily over its eighty five minute running time. The time slips, character switches and changes in intensity seem deliberately written to confuse and mislead the audience. As you try to piece together what is happening, you risk missing the next switch and it creates an unsatisfactory disorientation. This may be intended as it explores the confusion of feelings of dementia and grief and the impact of loss. Hampton himself says in the programme that it was only when he saw Zeller's plays a second time did they become clear and he fails in the translation to solve this problem, I don't think it is enough to ask an audience to see something twice to understand the action.

If you are struggling with what is the reality of the action before you it is harder to engage with the characters. Whereas in the Father we were moved by the slow revelation of his condition, here the writing never draws us into caring enough about the family despite the best efforts of the fine cast. The storm of the title has taken place the night before we first meet them but is also a metaphor for the storm that has hit the family and the impact of it is what the family is dealing with. When the daughter return to Paris we are left uncertain about what is next for Andre.

It is hard to imagine two more appropriate actors for the central roles of the long married couple Andre and Madeline. Jonathan Pryce conveys the tender affection for his wife with a gentle quiet authority. His stillness and slow deliberate movements convey the loss which is never explicitly explained. Eileen Atkins is his wife Madeline, drifting in and out of scenes, fading into the darkness but when centre stage she is in charge, organising and caring for the family. Their years of life experience are etched on their faces and in the looks they share with each other. Their dependency on each other is clear. 

Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley are their daughters Anne and Elise who arrive
at the house from Paris to deal with "the situation" by looking at Andre's old diaries, recalling past conversations and planning for the future. We observe their interactions with their parents in a series of short scenes which create the jigsaw pieces that we need to assemble to understand the play.

The lighting design by Hugh Vanstone captures the sunlight streaming through the kitchen windows and subtly fades across the room to create a sense of half life enabling characters to fade into the shadows. In some ways the lighting could have been less subtle to help distinguish the switches from realities to memories in each scene. 

I will see this play again when it transfers to the Wyndham's in October and I am sure will view it differently as each scene unfolds and see if Hampton is correct that it becomes clearer on a second viewing. If he is correct then I am sure I will appreciate the quality of the production and the performances of Pryce and Atkins much more.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Royal circle | Price of Ticket: £40
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