The set's better than the characterisation: The Father at the Wyndham's reviewed

Plus: Christopher Shinn is a subtle and gifted American dramatist but his latest, Teddy Ferrara, at the Donmar is more of a TV soap than a sharp satire

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

The Father

Wyndham's Theatre, booking to 21 November

Teddy Ferrara

Donmar, until 5 December

The Father, set in a swish Paris apartment, has a beautifully spare and elegant set. The stage is framed by a slender rectangle of dazzling white dots which impart an air of incalculable and almost intimidating opulence to the show. I felt I was lucky to be there. Here’s the plot. Kenneth Cranham plays a doddery old sausage whose daughter and her husband want to dump him in a nursing home. Will they succeed? That’s the plot. Writer Florian Zeller uses pranks and false starts to create suspense and to illustrate Dad’s scrambled mentality. Different actors play the daughter, the son-in-law and the day-nurse. At first this is gratifyingly weird but repetition makes it seem meagre and banal. Other effects stress the same point. Furniture is removed between scenes and the apartment gradually empties out until nothing remains but a white cube. A disjointed piano score reminds us that Dad’s old bonce is on the blink.

A play that spends so much time misdirecting the audience has little room for character development. These people are barely stereotypes: dotty dad, fretting daughter, huffy son-in-law, nice nurse. There’s a background murmur of violence too. It starts when the daughter, alone on stage, imagines herself throttling Dad as he sleeps. She hardly seems capable of such a crime but her speech lends credibility to later scenes of actual brutality. And tricky Zeller leaves it unclear whether the violence is real or just a figment of Dad’s crocked brain. Neither case covers the production in glory. If it’s real the characters are grisly sadists. If it’s imaginary the spectators are grisly voyeurs. Had I seen this play in my thirties, when my parents were heading for their seventies, I’d have assented to its unstated premise that care homes for the elderly are akin to despatching them to the workhouse or the Dignitas clinic. I now understand that residential care is a benign and natural solution to a problem that is itself a kind of blessing. I also know that agency nurses are nothing like the slim, perky young blonde who attends to Kenneth Cranham here by swapping jokes with him over a malt whisky. A real geriatric nurse is likely to be a demure, wise Senegalese Christian teetotaller the size of a tugboat.

The audience coughed and fidgeted irritably throughout this play and yet at the end they leaped to their feet to roar their approval as if the author had single-handedly destroyed Islamic State, cured cancer, found life on Mars and bought everyone a choc-ice. Let’s just say that Kenneth Cranham is great as the doddery old git. But let’s add that making a scatty grandfather endearing is not the sternest test of an actor’s craft.

Christopher Shinn is a subtle and gifted American dramatist whose monumental political satire, Now or Later, was directed by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court in 2008. Cooke has reassembled some of the old cast to have a crack at Shinn’s new play Teddy Ferrara, which is set on a university campus among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community (further titles to be added later). We follow gay men in various crises. One is incapable of commitment, one is in a wheelchair, one is bisexual but has a sex-bomb girlfriend, one is a suicidal loner who uses the internet to broadcast images of his engorged willy to the watching world. The disjointed scenes are further broken up by endless incoming texts and throbbing phone messages which remind us that the web has multiplied and trivialised our romantic lives. Which is hardly news. Nor is Shinn’s discovery that campus puritans are as shrill and doctrinaire as the early Bolsheviks.

The writing only gets going when the play examines the interface between political ambition, hypocrisy and minority rights. The university president (Matthew Marsh) is contemplating a shot at Congress and we see him in private bitching about gay activists before hosting a LGBTQ seminar where he oils up to every minority in the room. Marsh plays him beautifully as a thick-skinned paternalist loudmouth and the play seems uncertain whether to focus on his political ambitions or to charge off in pursuit of the overlapping bisexual love triangles. The result is a well-intentioned muddle which is engaging enough to be a TV soap but not sharp enough to be a satire. And it’s noticeable that Shinn is far happier writing for males than females.

I learned one thing from this play. Coming out to your parents is a status symbol that gay students bicker and preen about. To confess early, in your mid-teens, suggests an affluent, liberal background. To do it later signals to everyone that your folks are knuckle-dragging, trailer-park rednecks. I’ll leave you to guess which carries more prestige.

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  • Dogsnob

    Crucial, I’m sure.