Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins in The Height of the Storm at Wyndham’s Theatre – review round-up
In 2014, Florian Zeller was introduced to British theatre. The French playwright’s Moliere Award-winning work The Father arrived in the West End, via Bath and Kilburn, and promptly scooped up a clutch of awards and nominations. Since then, three more plays – The Mother in 2015, The Truth in 2016 and The Lie in 2017 – have made it to London.
And now the West End is playing host to a fifth. Zeller’s 2016 80-minute play The Height of the Storm is at Wyndham’s Theatre until December, in a translation by his usual adaptor Christopher Hampton.
The production is helmed by heavyweight director Jonathan Kent and stars two acting legends in the twin lead roles: Olivier and Tony award-winning stalwart of stage and screen Jonathan Pryce as novelist Andre, and three-time Olivier winner Eileen Atkins as his wife Madeleine.
But will these bright stars shine light on a fresh Florian Zeller? Can Kent make sure The Height of the Storm slips successfully over the English Channel? Do any critics have dry eyes after another dose of flummoxing French drama?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The Height of the Storm – A flummoxing Frenchman
It’s always tough to say what a Zeller play is actually about, but this one, on the surface, seems to be about a long-married couple, Pryce’s Andre and Atkins’ Madeleine, one of whom has recently died – or have they? Most critics embrace this ambiguity, and plenty point out its similarity to The Father.
“The beauty of Zeller’s play,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★), “lies in its slipperiness and ambiguity. Nothing is solid. Time is cruel and memory is fragile. Sometimes it seems as if Madeleine is not there at all, as if she exists only in Andre’s mind; at other times it’s like she just popped out to tend the vegetable garden and it’s he who is the ghost in his own home.”
“At a single viewing, it is impossible to pin this beautifully elusive play down,” comments Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “What I chiefly gleaned was that there is nothing conclusive about mortality. ‘You think people are dead, but that’s not always the case,’ says Andre at one point, and there is a pervasive sense that, after a lifetime together, a tangible memory remains.”
“There’s an emotional intelligence to The Height of the Storm that captures, in poetic fragments, the rippling pain of a lifetime shared then torn in two, and what that means for those left behind,” adds Tom Wicker (Time Out, ★★★★). “This is slyly the story of a haunted house, with ghosts at the kitchen table.”
There are similar sounds of soft praise from the other reviewers. “Zeller silkily interweaves layers of time and memory in this elegiac meditation on ageing, frailty and loneliness, fluidly rendered in Christopher Hampton’s translation,” writes Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★) calls the play “artfully confusing, always absorbing, darkly amusing and finally deeply moving” and Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★) labels it “deftly shattering”.
Only Jane Kemp (What’s On Stage, ★★★), Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★) and Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★) struggle with the slippery script. Kemp objects to “a puzzling mix of hints and unresolved ideas” and Wolf complains of “a tricksy text compels for the most part and only irritates now and again”.
“There’s brittleness as well as bitterness here, but not an altogether satisfying sense of dramatic momentum,” suggests Shenton. “Some may enjoy trying to put it together; others, like me, are left frustrated.”
The Height of the Storm – Married magnificence
A wrong-footing play, then, but two supremely sure-footed actors to shepherd the audience through it. What do the critics reckon about Pryce and Atkins’ performances? Well, most reviewers fall over themselves with praise.
“Pryce, that virtuoso mixer of outward stolidity and roiling inward life, has never been better,” writes Maxwell. “Atkins excels as the still-coping, still-acerbic, strikingly flesh-and-blood Madeleine.”
“Pryce is magnetic as Andre: cussed, awkward, authoritarian, yet also baffled, bereft and helplessly dependent,” agrees Billington. “The superb Atkins matches him every inch of the way, making Madeleine a woman who, however affected by grief, is far better than her partner at coping with daily reality: merely to watch Atkins sitting at a table peeling mushrooms or to hear her sigh with relief as the children depart is to get an insight into female fortitude and the tenacity of marital love.”
There’s nothing but admiration: Letts praises “two wonderfully watchable performances by top-class stage artists”, while Mountford admires how “Pryce captures precisely the vulnerability of a previously imperious man suddenly forced to confront a void” and how “Atkins uses her wonderfully wry delivery to express benign frustration with her husband and daughters”.
“Pryce grinds his jaw and picks at his clothes like a man whose anger is on the tip of his tongue, if he could remember it,” describes Wicker. “Atkins, who could probably win a gold medal for throwing shade, imbues Madeleine with strength and dry wit. Together, they’re devastating. They break your heart in the quietest, mundane moments.”
There’s also glimmers of approval for their supporting cast, and particularly for Amanda Drew as one of Andre and Madeleine’s two daughters. “It’s Drew who provides the play’s real emotional anchor, playing another woman struggling to hold it together while her father drifts further away from her,” argues Tripney.
The Height of the Storm – A slippery staging
Pryce and Atkins definitely live up to their billing, then, but what about the other Jonathan here – director Jonathan Kent whose stellar career has spanned the West End, Broadway and everywhere in between?
Most critics agree his done a fine job of staging Zeller’s play. “Kent’s 80-minute production is nicely paced, with a couple of quick breaks for whispered audience speculation,” describes Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★). “Anthony Ward’s design offers both a handsome communal space and – with careful placement of chairs – one that can quickly fracture, while Hugh Vanstone’s gorgeously evocative lighting shifts between moods and realities, casting meaningful shadows that suggest a deeper abyss.”
“Jonathan Kent’s production, boosted enormously by Anthony Ward’s lived-in, duck-egg-blue set and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, ropes you deep into the lives of this family even as you wonder what to believe,” concurs Maxwell, while Billington admires Kent’s direction and Hampton’s translation for how they “meticulously chart the intimacies and tensions of family life”.
Not all critics are completely satisfied. “In the past I’ve found Zeller’s plays dispassionate and wearyingly Parisian, clever and elegant but alienating,” confesses Tripney. “Jonathan Kent’s production does not avoid all of those pitfalls. It resists emotional excess. It’s frustratingly polite and theatrically static. But it pinpoints that sense of unsteadiness that comes from seeing a once formidable parent diminished by age, the pain of the things left unsaid, the arguments unresolved, and it has a disorientating, melancholic quality that’s genuinely moving.”
The Height of the Storm – Is it any good?
There are a few three-star ratings, but an overwhelming hoard of four-star reviews suggests that Florian Zeller’s latest import is well-suited to its Wyndham’s home.
Pryce and Atkins are showered in praise for their portrayal of an elderly married couple, Kent’s production is thought elegant and empathetic, and the critics – aside from a few confused complainers – think that The Height of the Storm is the height of silky, skilful and sensitive playwriting.
A slippery production, perhaps, but one that’s on solid ground in the West End.