The Height of the Storm, Theatre Royal, Bath

WITH acting nobility, the latest hit French writer and the best translator in the business, there are plenty of reasons to head to Bath this week before The Height of the Storm blasts into the West End on 2nd October.

Brazil is my favourite film, and Jonathan Pryce was already a star when he was in it 33 years ago. Since then I have seen him on stage twice, and he was perfect in both roles, the original Engineer in Miss Saigon and Professor Higgins in Trevor Nunn’s My Fair Lady at the National.

I have never seen his co-star, Dame Eileen Atkins on stage, but on screen she is always a delight, and her recent programme with fellow Dames Plowright, Smith and Dench was a gem.

There is something very reassuring about going to see a new play with two of the world’s best actors in the main roles. You already know that you are in for a treat, and that you can trust them to deliver the very best interpretation of anything. When the new material is the latest offering from Florian Zeller, whose Father, Mother, and The Truth have all been huge hits, and translated by Christopher Hampton, then your trust and reassurance is multiplied to an extreme.

The Height of the Storm takes themes that Zeller has already written about in his previous work, the onset of age, Alzheimer’s disease, truth and reality between families, loss of a loved one, and throws them at us with the expectation of intelligence and awareness. We have to work hard to establish what is real and what is in the mind of a character. Are both the main characters, Andre and Madeleine, played to sublime perfection by Pryce and Atkins, still alive? Is one of them really confused, or have we misinterpreted some key information? Time moves forward and back, to add to our challenge, but throughout the ninety minutes of action we are gripped, completely trusting, knowing that this is theatre at its best. This is not like the Emperor’s New Clothes, or a game of Mornington Crescent, it is real, deep, thought-provoking, and in the few seconds when a curtain drops to break the action a wave of discussion buzzes across the packed auditorium. The play reminded me of something by Pinter or Beckett at times, and only while driving home did I finally work out a simple plot, but I suspect every member of the audience has a different idea of what really happened on stage.

The quality of the two stars is equalled throughout the cast. The two daughters, Anne and Elise, played with the same level of truth and honesty by Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley respectively, Lucy Cohu, great as a mysterious former friend of Andre’s and Paul, Elise’s estate agent boyfriend, are all part of this team at the peak of their talent, including director Jonathan Kent and designer Anthony Ward, who gives us a highly realistic huge French kitchen with library and drawing room adjoining. It is not all deep, there are some great moments of humour, especially from James Hillier as Paul, eyeing up the property as only an estate agent could, and the single use of an expletive by Madeleine takes us all by surprise, with laughter taking more than a few seconds to subside.

Try and see this exciting new work if you can. It’s at Bath Theatre Royal until the end of next week, then Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, and then no doubt Broadway and the world. This is cutting-edge theatre at its very best, and it deserves to be seen again and again.


Photographs by Hugo Glendinning

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