That famous affliction, Donmar Madness, is back to haunt us. Not since Nicole Kidman was playing in The Blue Room has it been seen. The draw of Gwyneth Paltrow and her Shakespeare in Love director John Madden has the queues starting at 10.30 in the morning for 7.30 performances. With only four lucky people getting in for the performance reviewed, anyone arriving after lunch doesn't even get a standing place.
Amid all of this hype, it is an effort to be objective about the play which has already won two major awards in the United States. Similarly, the acting especially of the other three actors has to be judged through the hype attaching to the Hollywood celebrity.
Proof is a relative rarity, a scientifically based play that explores the very close relationship between madness and genius. It relates the story of Robert, a mathematical prodigy who is spent by 22 but has already revolutionised his field twice by that time. Unfortunately, he follows the route of so many prodigious geniuses - to eventual madness.
His two daughters, Catherine and Claire, are like chalk and cheese. The former seems to have inherited both her father's brain - she knew about prime numbers before she could read - and his tendency towards insanity. Claire is more like a Barbie doll, concerned about looks and surface issues but lacking any spark. She is also jealous of both the intellect of her sister and her bond with Robert, like that between lovers, that she herself has never had with their father.
After the death of their father, they meet and rake over his past. In this they are assisted by one of his former students, Hal. He is a combination of sensitive human being and shy, geeky mathematical bit player, who idolises Robert. This makes him the perfect "detective" when a mystery arises. Whose work is a newly discovered proof? Could the mad genius who was past it at 22 really have been its author?
The acting of all four players is strong. This is helped by Auburn's rather strange structure that ensures that almost always only two of the actors are on stage at any time. Since one of these is Miss Paltrow, she becomes the planet around which the others orbit. The good news is that despite relatively little stage experience she carries it off well. She catches the combination of strong supporter of her father with vulnerability when things go wrong. She may have a touch of madness in her but she is still a far better person than her awful selfishly simpering sister, played all too convincingly by Sara Stewart.
Ronald Pickup as Robert is excellent especially in the scene in which he descends into madness. He then commits Catherine to four years of drudgery to keep him from the mental hospital to which Claire would gladly have condemned him.
Richard Coyle, straight from success in The York Realist, is perhaps a little too attractive as the unshaven, nerdy Hal. However his real enthusiasm both in Catherine's company and when he can spot a mathematical breakthrough strike a chord.
John Madden does very well with his acting team. They work well together in the one to one situations that Auburn has created and bring out good performances from each other. Rob Howell's simple revolving set based on a Chicago veranda also creates the right impression of confusion and helps to break up the generally short, filmic scenes.
While the characterisation is good and some of the jokes funny, the second half of the play is something of a let down after a really satisfying build up. Everything becomes extremely predictable and the intellectual challenges set in the first half are not lived up to. Immediately before the interval a moment of shocking revelation is excellently delivered. Thereafter, the plotting becomes pedestrian. As we move backwards and forwards in time we learn no more about these potentially interesting characters.
For the most part, audiences will be delighted to have got in at all and the performances of all of the actors justify the effort. It could have been even better but is still well worth seeing if you have that rare chance to do so.
The Donmar wishes to point out that there are fourteen standing places on sale daily for every performance of Proof (which means twenty eight places on Thursday and Saturday matinee days), and there is always the chance of returns.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher