Proof

David Auburn
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
(2011)

Considering it's the longest-running Broadway play of the last two decades and winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, Proof hasn't had many outings in this country since it premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002.

It's difficult to say why theatres aren't keen on reviving the play. It could be because there was so much hype surrounding that first production which starred Gwyneth Paltrow and was directed by Shakespeare in Love director John Madden. It could also be because of the heavy subject matter: on the face of it mathematics isn't a particularly appealing topic and the underlying theme of dementia could be quote upsetting for some theatregoers.

But Newcastle-under-Lyme's New Vic realised how potent Proof could be in the intimate setting of its compact theatre-in-the-round. It's presenting David Auburn's play in its rep season alongside Sheridan's The Rivals, Spring and Port Wine by Bill Naughton and J M Barrie's The Admirable Crichton.

Here there are no stars - apart from Paul Greenwood who many people will still remember as PC Michael Penrose from the TV sitcom Rosie. In fact he has the smallest of the four roles as gifted yet unhinged mathematician Robert. The way Greenwood puts over his character's mental descent is commendable.

The biggest role goes to Emma Noakes as Robert's daughter Catherine. She drops out of college to look after him when it becomes apparent that he can't perform the simplest mathematical task, let alone the ground-breaking work which flowed from him during his 20s.

Noakes does a superb job of portraying the young woman who worries that she's inherited his illness as well as his genius. She pitches the character's mood swings, from impassive layabout to committed scientist, to perfection.

Noakes rises to the challenge of such a massive part and evokes sympathy for the way she deals with her relationships which are more complex than many of the mathematical theories that she tries to unravel.

New Vic regular Michael Hugo gives his customary impressive performance as Hal, the former student whose obsession with Robert's work might involve an ulterior motive.

Hugo is eminently capable of playing Hal as a more mature character as well as the geeky, immature student we meet during flashbacks.

Victoria Gee also gives an enjoyable portrayal of Claire, the sister who's distant in more ways than one. She wants to take Catherine away from Chicago to New York where she can be treated for her "madness".

The two are so different and have so little in common that it's no wonder their relationship is tested to the limit.

Auburn's writing is sharp and well observed; there's a breathtaking moment which ends the first act and further revelations after the interval maintain the audience's interest, although I feel the play peters out somewhat towards the end.

Former New Vic artistic director Gwenda Hughes knows how to make the most of the theatre's space and directs with style and aplomb.

Proof is a challenging play which the New Vic does so well. It was a pity that on the night I saw it the audience was a bit sparse. The production deserves a full house every night.

"Proof" continues in rep until June 4th

Reviewer: Steve Orme