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.