The Mother

Florian Zeller, in a new translation by Christopher Hampton

Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

From 21 May 2015 to 21 June 2015

Review by Allison Vale

Ustinov Artistic Director Laurence Boswell triumphs again with the latest in the studio's season of international plays.

After the triumph of Boswell's staging of The Father last year, by the remarkable and much-lauded French playwright Florian Zeller, Boswell brings the British première of Zeller's The Mother to the Ustinov in a new translation by Christopher Hampton.

Zeller describes the play as a comedy, but, notwithstanding the humour which runs through the piece, his astonishing treatment of the mayhem depression can wreak not only on the sufferer but on a family unit is too harrowing, too heart-breaking for the piece to warrant that categorisation.

Gina McKee is haunting as Anne, the mother of two grown children, both of whom have flown the nest. Their absence sits heavily with her: a cancer left to run riot. Most keenly, she feels the loss of her son, Nicholas (William Postlethwaite) who is busy trying to work through the obstacle course of his own troubled relationship with his girlfriend, Élodie (Cara Horgan).

Anne's depression along with what appears to be a growing addiction to prescription medication, washed down with an alcohol dependency, takes its toll not only on Anne but also on her husband Peter (Richard Clothier).

The cast are mesmeric throughout but what really makes this piece soar is Zeller's characteristic complex, repetitive story-telling. He plays and replays the same scenes over, messing with the dialogue, altering the action just enough to leave us battling to pinpoint what is the reality of Anne's world and what is her mounting drug- and depression-fuelled delusion.

As her illness progresses, Zeller's script demands that we share in her unravelling. For members of the audience who have never suffered with depression, Zeller unpacks the cyclical and tortuous impact the illness can have on the psyche of the sufferer.

The cumulative effect is that it is impossible to say where the rot lies in Anne and Peter's marriage: is he buckling under the strain of caring for his wife in the throes of her illness, or is he, as Anne suspects, living a lie? It is even impossible to tell whether the visit from her son and the appearance of his girlfriend actually take place or whether they are simply another figment of Anne's mental decline. Ultimately, reality or not, it matters little: the point is these are the torments playing through Anne's head.

Mark Mailey's design, Colin Grenfell's lighting and Jon Nicholl's sound and music bolster Boswell's vision of Anne's clinical, comfortless world; a relentless, discordant world bleached of colour, comfort, soft focus and soft edges, save for a few scatter cushions which Anne plumps and replumps over and over. The absence of everything which once made her house a home. A world which effortlessly transforms into a psychiatric ward.

This is an astonishing, harrowing production and the haunted world within which McKee traps Anne lingers long after the curtain.