THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM COMPANY
The young French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller is enjoying the kind of success on the London stage that another Parisian, Jean Anouilh, enjoyed in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Like Anouilh, Zeller is a skilled theatrical craftsman who knows how to write scenes and characters that keep an audience intrigued and attentive. The only notable difference between the two in matters of craft is that Anouilh’s plays respect the conventional running time, requiring a couple of intervals between the acts, whereas Zeller’s are over and done with in no more than 90 consecutive minutes. His novels are slimlined, too.
The Height of the Storm, at Wyndham’s Theatre, is the latest of Zeller’s brief explorations of family life to be performed here, following The Father and The Mother. (All three have been flawlessly translated by Christopher Hampton, who might almost be Zeller’s amanuensis, so close is the working relationship they have sustained.)
The setting is appropriately domestic, with most of the action taking place in the cluttered kitchen of the house in which André and his wife, Madeleine, have raised their daughters, Anne and Elise.
André, in common with his namesake in The Father, is in the grip of dementia, or seems to be. He is a famous writer with just a hint of a shady past, though not at all like the fraudulent Nobel laureate in the preposterous but entertaining film The Wife, who is also played by Jonathan Pryce. André isn’t preening or vainglorious, but rather bewildered and hapless in the face of reality, and Pryce captures his state of mind and body perfectly.
As Madeleine, Eileen Atkins shows yet again that acting can seem to be as natural as breathing if you are in possession, as she is, of a talent that always rejects the superficial effect. She is the least histrionic of actresses, using what appears to be an economy of means. To watch her peeling mushrooms at the kitchen table or arching her back as she washes the dishes in the sink is to receive a master-class in the fine art of doing less to achieve more.
Near the beginning of The Height of the Storm, it is hinted that Madeleine might be dead and that André is in mourning. Then Madeleine appears and speaks to her husband, encouraging the idea that the grieving widower is bringing her back in
his imagination. Anne and Elise talk of selling the house and placing their father in a care home. In only a sentence or two, Madeleine becomes, perhaps, the lonely widow. A woman turns up for tea and André is disconcerted by her presence. Was she his lover once? Again, ‘perhaps’ is the apposite word. Mystery is heaped on mystery as the play continues.
At one particularly enigmatic point, I was reminded of Tallulah Bankhead’s remark to her companion at the Broadway premiere of an abstruse piece of whimsy by Maurice Maeterlinck in 1922: ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’ But the moment passed, thanks to the performances of the entire cast under the immaculate direction of Jonathan Kent. It’s impossible not to be moved by the final scene in which Pryce and Atkins summon up a whole lifetime of marriage.
Marianne Elliott’s new production of the Stephen Sondheim/george Furth musical Company at the Gielgud Theatre has been highly, and rightly, praised for its inventiveness. The show was first staged in 1970, when its principal character, a 35-year-old New Yorker named Bobby, has cause to worry about his future as an eligible bachelor. He decides to find a wife, if he can, and settle down and start a family, just like his friends.
In 2018, Bobby has been replaced by Bobbie, a successful woman who has made her own way in what was once a man’s competitive society. It makes complete sense that Bobbie, at 35, should want to have children before it’s too late. Amy, the bride-to-be with jitters on the wedding day in 1970, is now Jamie, brilliantly acted and sung by Jonathan Bailey, a gay man engaged to Paul, with whom he’s about to tie the knot if he can stop himself shaking with fright. There are other changes of sex, all persuasive and credible.
Yet I have certain reservations. Sondheim’s music and lyrics conjure up the frantic pace that typifies New York, and chic Manhattan especially.
Bobbie may be a smart cookie but, deep down, she’s like Alice trying to negotiate a path through Wonderland, at least according to Elliott, who has Rosalie Craig, in the leading role, resemble the Alice drawn by Tenniel. Bunny Christie’s sets are made up of a series of rooms, and although the New York skyline is sometimes visible, the production seems to be functioning inside Bobbie’s head rather than the abrasive American city which is the true home of the musical.
Even so, it’s stylishly and cleverly performed. George Blagden, as P J, delivers Another Hundred People with aplomb, and the cast sing and dance Side by Side by Side and The Little Things You Do Together with verve and wit. Craig is very good as Bobbie, and Patti Lupone, playing the cynical, much-married Joanne, renders The Ladies Who Lunch like a terrifying dirge for the Botox generation (as neatly captured by Chelsea Renton in her cartoon on page 69 of this issue).
I saw Harold Prince’s original production in London in the early 1970s, and I distinctly remember loving Elaine Stritch as Joanne and thinking that Bobby was really a gay man in the legendary closet.
Man in a mystery: Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm