Thursday 11 June 2015

Theatre Review: The Mother at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

A mother’s job is to love and let go – gradually loosening the reins without unravelling herself. And this most precarious of balances is at the heart of Florian Zeller’s play The Mother, receiving its UK premiere at the Ustinov Studio.
For those who saw The Father last year, with Kenneth Cranham as the patriarch losing his faculties to dementia, then this, with Gina McKee playing Anne – the mother of the title – is its much anticipated companion. But while Cranham’s character deteriorated as part of the ageing process, Anne’s damage is apparently self-inflicted. Or so at first it appears.
Anne and Peter have been married for twenty-five years. Peter is a suited-and-booted office worker, his life a hectic schedule of meetings and deal closing. Anne stays home, looking after the house and mourning the empty spaces where her grown up children used to be. Her daughter she can live without, but her son is a different matter. Nicholas is her breath, her orbit. Now he’s moved away, she repeatedly leaves messages on his phone and frets when he doesn’t call back. His girlfriend Élodie she considers vulgar, not good enough; really it would be better if he left her and came back home.
As with The Father, Zeller creates not just one reality, but many possibilities. Scenes are played and replayed; Anne is at first angry with Peter for his lateness, convinced that his weekend seminar in Leicester is cover for an affair. Next time round, she’s gloomy and lethargic, apparently detached. Then, does Nicholas really return home in the middle of the night or is this a longed-for figment of Anne’s drug and drink-addled imagination? Zeller once again plays with his audience’s perceptions, building his narrative on sand. As identities become interchangeable, outcomes shift and we experience Anne’s confusion for ourselves.
Gina McKee’s harrowing performance captures all the desperation and longing of addiction; a mother unwilling and unable to let go, the pain of separation written in the pallor of her face despite its medicated numbness. William Postlethwaite’s Nicholas is finely nuanced, alternating between the bond with his mother and the need to escape from her suffocating obsession and into the arms of his lover. Richard Clothier’s Peter gives little of his real motivation away; outwardly the long-suffering, devoted husband, can he really be a duplicitous philanderer? We only know what Anne knows – that there’s more to him than meets the eye. And Cara Horgan captures all the arrogance of youth and vitality in her portrayal of Élodie.
Mark Bailey’s predominantly white set is minimalist and sterile, with the few splashes of colour – some cushions, a red dress – almost shocking in their intensity. As a blackout curtain descends between scenes, it plunges the audience into the stuff of Anne’s own nightmares, overlaid with Jon Nicholls’ fractured and discordant sound design.
Once again Christopher Hampton’s translation from the French is seamless, even though it can initially feel more difficult to empathise with Anne than with the central character in The Father. Perhaps you need to be the mother of boys – or a son. Yet, under Laurence Boswell’s sure direction, as it moves towards its disturbing conclusion, this is an ending you can’t look away from; watching The Mother is ultimately like crawling into the void of one woman’s soul.
Runs until Saturday 20th June 2015 | Photo: Simon Annand

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