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The Father at Wyndham’s Theatre, London – ‘carefully calibrated, but too clinical’

Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham in The Father at Wyndhams Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham in The Father at Wyndhams Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Florian Zeller’s play – coming to the West End from the Theatre Royal Bath via a stint at the Tricycle – depicts the gradual, cruel unravelling of the mind by dementia.

Kenneth Cranham plays octogenarian Andre; though clearly a man of considerable charm and presence in his day, and possibly not the most generous of fathers, his grip on life is now slipping. As he loses his sense of time and place, he becomes increasingly paranoid and childlike, easily frightened, and rightfully so – it is frightening.

The play’s biggest strength is in the way it presents his world, the confusion of it, the traps it sets for him, while also showing what life is like for his patient but increasingly weary daughter, played with delicacy and restraint by Claire Skinner.

The audience is frequently plunged into black, during which time things shift and the furniture moves. The chronology of scenes is intentionally slippery, as Miriam Buether’s clinical, high-ceilinged set is slowly emptied, leaving only an expanse of bare white wall.

James Macdonald’s production is one of French polish and balletic measure. It should be a hard watch and often this is so, but at times it is rather too cool and clinical, something not helped by the fact that it feels somewhat overwhelmed by its new surroundings.

Cranham’s performance, however, is very well judged, with just enough dance in it to stop the whole experience from feeling relentlessly bleak, and the last few minutes, when Andre is stripped of his last defences, of his dignity, are genuinely upsetting.

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A carefully calibrated if somewhat clinical account of one man’s descent into dementia