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Posts Tagged ‘Eileen Atkins’

This is the fifth Florian Zeller play produced in London in just over three years, with a sixth scheduled before four years are up – no other playwright has achieved that, I suspect, though they were written over eight years. This French playwright has really caught the eye of both producers and audiences.

The previous four were in two stylistic pairs – The Father & The Mother and The Truth & The Lie – with this one closest to the former (as it appears will the sixth one, as it’s called The Son). They’ve all been translated by Christopher Hampton and the common feature is their inventive structure – he likes to mess with your head – and length (under ninety minutes), oh, and two word titles (with the exception of this one!). I loved the first three, but I think I might already be tiring of the somewhat smug cleverness, as I eventually did with Stoppard.

This one features an elderly couple, wonderfully played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, and their two daughters. We’re in their country home outside Paris, but just about everything else is left for you to work out. At various points, either or both parents might be dead, ghosts or in other characters’ imagination. The themes are love, grief, death, dependency, dementia (again), secrets, legacy and the obligations of children to their parents. I was intrigued and attentive, but it was too obtuse and left me unsatisfied.

Jonathan Kent’s production is very gentle, poetic and beautiful, with a lovely design by Anthony Ward. It’s superbly performed, with extraordinary chemistry between Pryce and Atkins, and fine support from Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley and nice cameos from Lucy Cohu and James Hillier. It has a very melancholic feel and works well at an emotional level, but on this occasion that wasn’t enough for me, I’m afraid.

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When I picked up my ticket, I saw I was in the back row – the last time I was in the back row at Jermyn Street Theatre I hardly saw a thing; such are their sight lines. When I entered the auditorium (a bit of an exaggeration for a basement room with 70 seats) I sighed with relief when I saw they’d put in a stage. When I left I asked if it was permanent and was told ‘no’ – dreadful decision, JST!

Anyway, to the play….a Samuel Beckett radio play that’s never been staged, no doubt because of the notorious Beckett estate’s protection bordering on paranoia. The solution seems to be to turn the theatre into a radio studio with hanging microphones, cast on chairs at the sides, everyone with scripts. The one concession was a cut-out car door needed to properly illustrate the very large Mrs Rooney (played by the ever so slight Eileen Atkins) getting in and out of a car. It would be tempting to close your eyes, but to do so would miss the great Dame’s extraordinary range of facial acting.

She’s on a journey to meet her blind husband and encounters seven other characters on the way. This is such ‘event theatre’ that these bit parts are played by premiere league actors (apart from the boy, who will no doubt dine out on this experience for the rest of his life). I’m not sure I entirely understand it (or if I’m supposed to) but the journey is charming, poetic, funny, poignant and engrossing. Michael Gambon’s Mr Rooney switches emotional state on the turn of his head in a virtuoso display of acting. The Dame and the Knight do not disappoint; if anything, liberated of the need for much stage business they shine more.

I’d now like to hear it on the radio so that I can see if the staging adds or takes anything away. A gentle and satisfying 80 minutes. Has director Trevor the-longer-the-better Nunn ever done anything this short?

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