‘The Height of the Storm’ review

Theatre, Drama Wyndham's Theatre , Covent Garden Until Saturday December 1 2018
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(19user reviews)
The Height of the Storm
© Hugo Glendinning Jonathan Pryce & Amanda Drew

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Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins shine in this elliptical drama from Florian Zeller

Grief is at the heart of this elliptical, meditative exploration of the shades of loss by French playwright Florian Zeller. ‘The Height of the Storm’ is his second trip to the West End after 2015’s ‘The Father’.

Crucially, and brilliantly, exactly who has died is never fully resolved. Is it Madeleine (Eileen Atkins)? Or is it André (Jonathan Pryce), her partner of 50 years, who we meet staring out of a darkened window as Jonathan Kent’s production opens? We get scenes replayed with different people and outcomes.

There’s an argument to be made that Zeller’s plays are essentially variations on the same thing: a theatricalization of the complicated, fragmented inner world of the mind. Pryce’s character, who it gradually becomes clear is grappling with dementia, even shares a name with the Alzheimer’s-stricken parent in ‘The Father’.

But the mind is a big place and, here, what Zeller renders so beautifully is the love between Madeline and André. Designer Anthony Ward’s kitchen set is full of books, haphazardly stacked. There’s a glimpsed library. André is (or was) a writer and this play delves, without conclusion, into the storytelling of their lives.

It takes a couple of scenes for Zeller’s wordiness (via Christopher Hampton’s translation) to find its rhythm. But when it does, we get a lyrical portrait of two people shaped into one by their years together but also by a past that may have contained secrets. As André loses his moorings on the present, guilt is a spectre.

Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley have some strong scenes as the grown-up daughters floundering over how to handle their stubborn, ageing parents as well as their own lives. But Kent’s production – which makes a virtue out of an atmosphere of stillness and a dripping tap – belongs to Atkins and Pryce.

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. 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.

Ultimately, we don’t need to know who has died. 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. This is slyly the story of a haunted house, with ghosts at the kitchen table.

By: Tom Wicker

Posted:

Venue name: Wyndham's Theatre
Contact:
Address: Charing Cross Road
London
WC2H 0DA
Transport: Tube: Leicester Square; Rail: Charing Cross
Price: £14.75-£99.75. Runs 1hr 20min
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Average User Rating

3.8 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:2
  • 4 star:12
  • 3 star:5
  • 2 star:0
  • 1 star:0
LiveReviews|19
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Tastemaker

Height of the storm is a very refreshing play on love and loss in a complex family setting. The performance was brilliant; especially Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins performed superbly in their roles as ‘Andre’ and ‘Madeline’.

The play is short and sweet and there is no interval.

Jonathan Pryce has done it again, go catch the play before it finishes!

tastemaker

There is nothing ordinary about this clever, touching and intriguing play by Florian Zeller. For one, expect no interval as you prepare to dive into the emotional 50 year-old romance of André and Madeleine. Then expect to be confused, illuminated and confused all over again by a delightful theatrical exploration-cum-game into memory, reality, loss and love.


The play opens with André looking nostalgically out of his kitchen window. The silence is sharply interrupted by the arrival of his daughter, Anne, who has come to check in of him. What follows is a seemingly unintended monologue by Anne who fails to ignite any reactions from her father. As Anne concludes, the audience is left pretty certain that Andre’s wife has passed away but that he is still in denial. Or so we think. Without any warning, the kitchen door opens and Madeleine, Andre’s supposedly departed wife, walks in with their younger daughter Elise. The two are just returning from the market with some fresh mushrooms, getting ready to prepare André’s favourite- a mushroom omelette. So what happened you may be wondering? Who, if anyone, has actually passed away? The answer is far from simple and as the rest of the play unfolds we find that the truth, just like the human mind, has many twists and turns and that often one is left only with loose ends which may never quite fit together.


Somewhat frustrating at times (if what you were looking for was light, mid-week entertainment), but actually brilliant in its twists, little hints that fit seamlessly together when you consider the story as a whole, this play will leave you guessing long after the curtain has fallen.


Florian Zeller’s ingenious explorations into what is real and which memories genuinely are legitimate are at their peak in the The Height of the Storm. At times you will be seeing the world through André’s lens, at times’ through Madeleine. Even more intriguingly, at other points you will realise you’re actually privy to the mind of one of their daughters, imagining how their mother would have dealt with their father’s death or with the prospect of him having had an affair and potentially an illegitimate child. We never find out if any of this is real, imagined by his daughter, or written down in a burst of writer’s inspiration by André in his forgotten diary. For the spectator however, it all seems real: André, Madeleine, their daughters, André’s old friend and potential lover.


Aside from its intellectual delight and touching storyline, Zeller’s play also succeeds in being quite often funny. Towards the end of the play, the story takes us yet again to the kitchen table, where now only André and Madeleine remain seated, their daughters having just left. Madeleine turns to André and says: “It’s nice they’re finally gone, they’re alright but it’s better when it’s just you and me.”


As you ponder the scene in front of you, you want to hope that maybe it was all imagined, that all is well in the end, that actually both characters made it out alive. This may or may not be true, it all depends on what you think about an infamous small card accompanying a bunch of flowers, lost for most of the play, but suddenly discovered towards the end. But to understand more and to make up your own mind (if you can), you’ll have to experience the story for yourself.

tastemaker

All of the actors in this play were brilliant, and delivered some amazing heart felt performances - so it is worth going to see it for that. However I found the plot super confusing, and felt like I had no idea what was going on for the entire play. As Chloe said below, who is dead?! Maybe I'm just not cultured enough to appreciate the subtleties of the plot, but I overheard a lot of other confused people on the way out!

Tastemaker

Ever since watching Tomorrow Never Dies I have loved Jonathan Pryce! Then more recently in GoT he's rekindled my love - what a great baddy. Now he is rocking it in the West End starring as a writer suffering with dementia and facing his past. As the synopsis eludes it certainly is an intense 1 hour 20 but really worth a see. Thought provoking and mesmerising.

tastemaker

I was really looking forward to this play, mainly because of the well-known cast who’s performances don’t disappoint.

The set is clever with its oversized/one-point perspective staging.

However, as engrossing as the play is, it’s also perplexing at times. I still don’t understand how it ended- was he dead the whole time? Or only half way through? Or was it her who was dead? Or were they both dead?

If you want a clear outcome or explanation you might be disappointed.

tastemaker

Confusing but enjoyable. Height of the Storm gripped me, but for the majority of the play I was scratching my head and because of this, I don’t feel I became fully absorbed into the story. I loved the length at 1 hour 30 minutes and no interval and wish more plays were of this length. The casting and acting was absolutely fantastic and the set had obviously had so much thought put into it to make the small details count. Unfortunately though as I previously stated, I felt the plot tried a bit too hard to be different/new therefore ended up being confusing and stuffy at times. Height of the Storm was good, but not amazing.

Tastemaker

Florian Zeller's new play is actually a return to the very old plays of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, with a textbook domestic drama focusing on a crisis that breaks a family apart and makes them confront their past, present and future. The shifting perspectives of the elderly parents and their adult daughters lead to their and the audience's questioning of what matters and what should be dismissed. Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins are superb as the husband losing his memory and his identity who can't function and the no-nonsense wife who functions all the time. What is real and what is not depends on whether the play should be viewed through the husband's diminishing memory, the wife's strong will or the two daughters' self-absorption. The heavy emphasis on the natural world of the storm mimicking the storm inside the house is a bit too repetitive and obvious but the play, done without an interval keeps, the emotion and tension high.

Tastemaker

The perfect excuse for an evening out, that will get you home by your bedtime. The play is in the beautiful Wyndham's Theatre next to Leicester Square, and has no interval. I would say "get comfortable", but the interesting storyline keeps you on the edge of your seat. 


Without giving away any spoilers, the small cast touch upon various impactful themes present in family life: health, stability, happiness, career, old age and relationships. Everyone delivered their lines with such grace, really bringing the viewer in to what they were experiencing. 


I would definitely see it again. 

Tastemaker

Beautiful, quite confusing (in a touching way) play about an old couple (and their daughters), concerning the subjects of relationships, love, family, old age, death, dementia, loneliness, trust (and probably a few others!) It’s a lot to take, and it’s purposely disorienting plot, so we spend most of the time as confused (and feeling powerless) as the characters in the play. Unfortunately, can’t say more without spoiling some of the plot. It does last a little longer that it needed to, but it really is a display of marvellous acting, setting production (I wanna live in that house!) and well weaved writing. 


Madeline and André have been married for over half a century. The couple are reaching the end of their lives and their daughters, Anne and Elsie, have some big decisions to make. The entire play takes place in the large open-plan kitchen of their family home. Bookshelves are overflowing. The kitchen is kept tidy and precise. Large, misty mirrors loom over the characters at the back of the stage. It's a setting that reflects a lifetime of memories and history created over a long, seemingly happy marriage. A bunch of flowers arrive and suddenly, and rather uncomfortably, this history begins to unravel.


As the action unfolds the audience begin scratching their heads in confusion. One of the parents has died, but it’s not clear which one; both Madeline and André float in and out of the scenes at regular intervals. We soon learn that playwright Florian Zeller has almost created two plays and weaved them into one: one where Madeline passes away and one where André does. It follows a rough chronology, but plays and experiments with time and reality. It’s an incredibly ambitious concept but one that is executed beautifully through Hugh Vanstone’s clever tricks of light, Zeller’s delicately constructed dialogue, and an incredibly accomplished cast.


The subject matter is equally ambitious. The biggies are covered: death, grief, legacy, Alzheimer’s, power, family, love. What do you do when a parent can no longer look after themselves? When they are no longer emotionally and physically independent? What do you do with a family house that is no longer fit for purpose? This is uncomfortable territory, but increasingly people feel these things should be discussed (the podcast ‘You Me and the Big C’ has recently attracted a large following for their candid approach to death). Daughters Anne and Elsie use a tiresome string of euphemisms to dither about their parents’ death (“the situation” being the most common). This contrasts brilliantly with Eileen Atkins’s portrayal of Madeline who is calm, lucid and very direct (as one very memorable line in particular reveals).


The Height of the Storm is profound, moving, incredibly sad, yet simultaneously uplifting. Fiction that probes the shadowy past of a well-respected public figure is nothing new, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such creative execution. Don’t go if you’re expecting a light-hearted night out of fun and frollocks, but I’d encourage you all to see this hugely impressive production.

tastemaker

As an audience member, you will feel at first feel slightly perplexed as you witness some fine acting performances, particularly by Pryce and Atkins. But it is through their convincing acting that you will begin to understand their journey and watch the story unfold. Worth a watch if you enjoy themes of family, love and life. There are surprisingly moments of humor too!

tastemaker

This is a short play with no interval, a brilliant cast and a heart-wrenching theme. The audience is predominantly people over 50, presumably because of the topics it covers on family and growing old.

Without giving too much away, the play centres around one family and how the parents are coping with old age.

The set feels very familiar, the kitchen and heart of the home of a couple in their late 70s, artefacts and books they’ve collected over the years cluttering up the shelves, their routine disrupted by their daughters visiting.

This play is one that will provoke emotion and thoughtfulness, there is no doubt we can all relate to this play on some level. I feel that this is an important play to go and see.

tastemaker

Beautiful family drama ! Its about love, family and life. The audience was confused at the beginning as it is not very clear what happened or what might have happened.


It really attracted to me the tension that the dialogue between the characters builds up until everything comes clear and makes perfect sense. 


Its melancholic and very meaning, truly a reflection on relationships. 

tastemaker

Simple & complex, depending on your interpretation. It's about what happened/ what may have happened/ what could happen & how memory can return, and can be lost.

This is a brave production of a very interesting play, and we are lucky to be able to see Eileen Atkins & Jonathan Price, two superb actors at the peak of their art. 
tastemaker

Deep, meaningful performance. A compelling but also tragic story but a must-see!


Quite confusing at first but slowly will build and ends up being emotional and rewarding.

Outstanding performances by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins.

If you like cerebral plays, this one is definitely for you.

tastemaker

Interesting Story + Incredible Acting = an emotional rollercoster

Led to an evening of self reflection where you truely relate to the characters.

A good excuse for an evening at the theatre



tastemaker

There is so much to be praised about this play. The acting was amazing, the set was stunning and the length of the play was perfect for me at 90 minutes. I loved the use of light in the play as it appeared really natural and worked to fit the mood of each scene. 

Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins (the stars) were amazing in the roles they played. They conveyed a natural depiction of an elderly couple going through change (without giving away spoilers) and their relationship and emotions really resonated with me. 

I personally found the other characters less engaging but the focus was less on them, so maybe that was a part of the play. 

Other than that, I think this is a great production and its representation of home life is highly believable. 

tastemaker

This play is certainly different and really challenges you as an audience member.

I couldn't work out for a long time who was real. I don't want to spoil it so I won't say too much more on the actual plot.

The story is of a family going through change and I am sure many can relate to the stress and worries that the children go through.

The acting is fantastic and I couldn't fault it. I would have given it 3.5 if that existed.

It's worth a view but not unmissable