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Hip French playwright Florian Zeller does it again with this powerful companion piece to last year's 'The Father'
The strength of this play lies less in what it says, and more in how it gets there. Following last year’s acclaimed ‘The Father’ – which transferred from the Tricycle to the West End – French playwright Florian Zeller’s parental companion piece is a finely structured study of inner and outer lives and the breakdown between them.
The basic plot is straightforward enough. Anne (Gina McKee), the titular mother, is unhealthily housebound. While obsessing over her absent son, Nicholas (William Postlethwaite), she suspects her husband, Peter (Richard Clothier), of having an affair. As the narrative unfolds, her behaviour becomes ever more erratic.
Strip everything back and what you get is empty nest syndrome, a woman floundering for identity after devoting years of her life to someone else. It’s not a new story, almost a cliché. But Zeller (in a crisp translation by Christopher Hampton) opens up Anne’s head and invites us inside. Scenes repeat the same events in distorted and increasingly disordered ways as Anne’s mental state collapses.
Where ‘The Father’ dealt with Alzheimer’s, ‘The Mother’ gives us a powerfully effective representation of breakdown, of raging paranoia rippling below the surface. The shift between a drugged-up, disorientated Anne and a hurt, vindictive version has a feverish quality. Zeller’s writing is playful and lacerating, although it takes a while to sync up with a growling McKee.
Clothier and Postlethwaite do well in roles that change tone according to Anne’s perception of their characters. Meanwhile, Frances McNamee, who pops up as both Nicholas’s girlfriend and – in one hallucinatory scene – Peter’s mistress, hits the right note of exaggerated, brittle bounciness. She’s Anne’s all-purpose, imagined nemesis – a cruel self-taunt.
Laurence Boswell’s stylish production captures both the emptiness and funnelling of Anne’s life to a single point of despair. Against the glaring white of the stage, the open doorway in the centre of the back wall is a fearful exit into the unknown.
You could argue that this production just finds clever ways of saying a simple thing. And while McKee brings an impishly chaotic quality to some scenes, Anne – as an individual – is distant. But Zeller deliberately paints on a broad canvas. As a portrait of a breakdown, ‘The Mother’ is incisively wrought and quietly devastating.