The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Paul Bai­ley

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

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