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‘The Forest’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
The Forest, Hampstead Theatre, 2022
Photo by Richard Davenport
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Toby Stephens, Gina McKee and Paul McGann anchor the lastest twisty thriller from unstoppable French hitmonger Florian Zeller

With ‘The Forest’, French playwright Florian Zeller truly cements his status as the M Night Shyamalan of tense domestic dramas about upper-middle-class French people. He writes shortish, accessible plays that are essentially extremely middlebrow, but also furiously gripping, largely because there’s always a bloody twist.

‘The Forest’ starts how you expect it to start: innocuously. We meet the protagonist, played by Toby Stephens (his official billing in the script is ‘Man 1’, though he would appear to be named Pierre). He is a successful senior doctor who has just got home to his elegant wife (Gina McKee, billed as ‘Wife’ but probably named Laurence) and their visiting adult daughter Sara (Millie Brady), who is sad about her break-up with her boyfriend. At one point attention is drawn to a bouquet of flowers on the table: a patient’s wife has sent them as a thank you for successful surgery on her husband’s leg.

Next – in a higher, previously concealed section of Anna Fleischle's box-of-tricks set – we meet another middle-aged-man (Paul McGann, aka ‘Man 2’) in bed with Sophie (Angel Coulby), the sparky young woman he is having an affair with: the scene is relatively sunny and sedate, though she becomes somewhat agitated that he won’t break things off with his wife.

Then we’re back in the home of McKee and Stephens’s characters. They have some guests around for tea. All pretty ho-hum. Except inexplicably, McKee gives their friends a drastically different explanation of where the bouquet of flowers came from.

It becomes increasingly apparent that we’re not seeing objective reality: scenes repeat and replay constantly with subtle changes or switches in the casting. The actor Finbar Lynch appears as… somebody. The script refers to him as ‘The Man in Black’: he’s a malevolent figure in whiteface make-up who seems to variously fulfil the role of a cop, a psychiatrist and a demon. He tells Pierre a story about a prince who becomes lost in a forest in the obsessive pursuit of a stag. Eventually, trapped and alone, he comes to question whether the stag has ever existed.

Clearly something like this has happened to Pierre’s mind, and in Jonathan Kent’s production – the world premiere of both the play and Christopher Hampton’s translation – it all makes for a slick, gripping one hour 20 minutes. The actors have varying amounts to get their teeth into: McKee is a bit underserved; Lynch is memorably creepy. Both their accents (and McGann’s) have been filed down to frictionless RP. Everyone slots efficiently into place in the play’s machinery: Stephens and McGann aren’t really stretching themselves as handsome middle-aged men who find themselves out of their depth, but it’s what’s the play needs, and they deliver. 

The thing is… unravel the structure, and the actual story we’re left with is incredibly pedestrian, a bland ITV potboiler. That’s not to say we should discount the structure, which clearly elevates the play, and is indivisible from it. But Zeller’s work is forever vaguely reminiscent of Pinter but has none of his depth or enigmatic menace, and there’s always An Explanation for what’s going on. It makes him accessible, and is clearly a big part of what makes him such a relentless hit machine. At its best it works really well: he won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of his most famous play, ‘The Father’, a chic mystery that’s not in any way diminished by the eventual revelation that the protagonist is suffering from alzheimer’s. But given a less affecting subject, you have a less affecting play. Plus there’s simply diminishing returns to a playwright who broadly speaking tries to pull the same trick each time, especially as his terse works have absolutely no truck with subtext (or subplots, for that matter). 

As usual, ‘The Forest’ is highly watchable and with this cast stands every chance of following ‘The Father’, ‘The Son’ and ‘The Height of the Storm’ into the West End. Lots of people are going to enjoy it. I enjoyed it! But I just find it hard to quite reconcile myself to Zeller’s enormous popularity: he is quite possibly the most successful playwright in the world today, but he doesn’t really feel like he is: an efficient crafter of entertainment rather than somebody whose next work is feverishly anticipated. His plays are efficient, gripping, but never really audacious. I’m always left with the same question: is that it?

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

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Price:
£12-£37. Runs 1hr 30min
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