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The play begins with a grown daughter, Anne, a resigned and dutiful Amanda Drew asking questions to her old man. About breakfast, about the storm that raged the night before. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even look at her. He is absorbed by the window, by something outside the window. Jonathan Pryce barely moves for the first couple of minutes but his face is caught in the sunlight coming through the window and his eyes sparkle. We know we are in for a treat. It all happens in the kitchen of a French country house. Anthony Ward’s set is so real you believe the shadows cast by the slanting day light through the windows. A box of Le Chat detergent is on the table. The walls are faded, the ceilings high, the stereo boxed in between books is from a different era. The kind of house that is a thrill to arrive in but gradually becomes claustrophobic in a dusty kind of way. Time doesn’t move here the way it does elsewhere. Fifty years of marriage populates this space and Ward has managed to create a set to reflect that old song of Jacques Brel, “La Chanson des Vieux Amants.” In this case, the ‘Vieux Amants’ are Jonathan Pryce as Andre, a writer who is losing his capacities and Eileen Atkins as his wry and devoted wife Madeleine.
Florian Zeller is probably the most popular living French playwright today. In the UK, he won an Olivier award for his play The Father, translated, just like Height of the Storm, by Christopher Hampton. Zeller didn’t set out to be a playwright. He was enjoying a great success as a novelist when Francoise Sagan suggested he replace her to write a libretto for an opera. Zeller accepted because he thought it would bring him closer to the world of music. Instead, he fell in love with theatre.
“The Height of the Storm” is a brave and unapologetically intelligent play about what it means to be in a couple for fifty years and what happens when one half dies and leaves the other half behind. Perhaps it is an obsolete question for today’s society. Zeller contrasts the lives of Andre and Madeleine with that of their daughters: Anne is getting separated and Elise (Anna Madeley) changes partners so often her father confuses her current real estate agent boyfriend with her former car wash owning one. Pryce infuses an old man who is redundant by any measure, who is likely headed to a nursing home, with a life force that keeps us riveted. Eileen Atkins has the difficult role of mixing everyday chores, she is always active when on stage, peeling mushrooms, rinsing dishes…while remaining profoundly still, frozen like in a snap shot from the past. Atkins indeed makes Madeleine behave like a memory, steady, strong, predictable…until she isn’t. There is plenty of mystery in “The Height of the Storm” as reality bends to the storm raging in this family’s heart.
At Wyndham’s theatre, London, until 1 December.