The Father: a 'tough, sinewy' exploration of the impact of dementia

Mark Hadlow gives an extraordinary performance as Andre in The Father.
SUPPLIED/Court Theatre
Mark Hadlow gives an extraordinary performance as Andre in The Father.

REVIEW: Andre is a retired engineer; a literate, eloquent, somewhat forceful personality but a man of considerable charm and humour.

Andre finds himself inhabiting a dislocated nightmare filled with unfamiliar places, unexpected threats and unknown faces. This isn't the urbane, civilised bourgeois world Andre knows. Darkness is overwhelming him but Lear-like he'll defy it.

Can the real impact of dementia on an individual ever be satisfactorily conveyed within the span of a comparatively short play?

French playwright, Florian Zeller's The Father – currently on stage at Christchurch's Court Theatre – comes close to succeeding without force feeding the audience obligatory doses of sugary sentiment or preaching with cloying bathos.

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Zeller's play is a tough, sinewy and bluntly spoken creature. It might be short (one hour and twenty-five minutes) but it is no light-weight when it comes to delivering its emotional punch.

Success (or failure) definitely rests on a cast capable of delivering such emotional and human complexities.

Director Simon Bennett found a near-perfect team led by Mark Hadlow as Andre and Luanne Gordon as Anne. This play rests on the relationship between father and daughter and Hadlow and Gordon delivered performances which crackled with intensity but which also became achingly poignant.

Hadlow confronted Andre's rapidly diminishing world with mounting rage, paranoia and rank fear. It became an extraordinary performance as his mood switched rapidly between outrage, confusion and insinuating charm as strangers came and went and, in an especially clever theatrical device, the small world of his Paris apartment was physically stripped of every familiar object until it became a symbol of Andre's featureless mental prison.

Gordon reveals Anne as a woman desperate to give her father the care and love she believes he deserves but someone emotionally and physically drained by the demands placed on her. It would be easy to have overacted in the role but Gordon instinctively knew when to pull back to deliver a profoundly moving performance.

They were strongly supported by Tom Trevella as Pierre, Ailis Oliver-Kerby as Laura, Kim Garrett as the woman and Owen Black as the man.

The Father is not an "easy" play to perform or watch. But this production gives it the power and pays it the respect it fully deserves.