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.
|Venue name:||Wyndham's Theatre|
Charing Cross Road
|Transport:||Tube: Leicester Square; Rail: Charing Cross|
|Price:||£14.75-£99.75. Runs 1hr 20min|
Average User Rating
3.8 / 5
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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.
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.