Proof

David Auburn
Birmingham Stage Company
Arts Theatre
(2007)

Publicity image

The Birmingham Stage Company made a brave decision in reviving this drama so soon after its British debut. When Proof appeared at the Donmar five years ago, tickets were white hot and not since Nicole Kidman took her clothes off had return queues been so long.

The attraction was Hollywood superstar Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead part of Catherine, although the support that she received from Ronald Pickup and Richard Coyle ensured an unforgettable evening, even for those who had stood in line all day and then through the performance.

Just to hammer home the quality of the roles, Anthony Hopkins replaced Pickup and Jake Gyllenhaal, Coyle when John (Shakespeare in Love) Madden transferred his stage production on to film.

Surely, in this context, the current incarnation must be on a hiding to nothing? No - all credit to veteran director John Harrison and his team, they have come up with a gripping production that is a reminder of what a good play this is, with or without the household names.

Norman Coates' set is rather staid. The action all takes place on the veranda in front of a clapboard house in Chicago. The occupants are Robert, a former math(s) prodigy played by Terence Booth, who soon lost his marbles and has just died after decades in the wilderness with only a brief remission; and his daughter Catherine.

It cannot be easy to step into Gwyneth P's shoes but with the compulsory haystack hair for the role, Sally Oliver is great, with something of the star's looks and many of the kooky mannerisms.

When the play starts, Catherine has spent the previous four years nursing her father and now, as her 25th birthday dawns, sits waiting for his funeral guests.

One is there already, in the form of the suitably nerdy but still handsome Hal (Neal Foster). He speaks the same language but hasn't an ounce of Robert's talent. The suggestion is that he is in the house going through notebooks from the mad period, in the hope of discovering a launchpad for his own career. When he does find a world-shattering proof, the drama soars.

The last member of the party is Catherine's horrendously pushy sister Claire, more like a patronising schoolmarm than the financial whiz she really is. Aislinn Sands irritates (possibly deliberately) as the adopted New Yorker who preys on her sibling's instability and believes that money (and psychiatry) can solve everything.

Proof has one of the best interval curtain lines in theatre and the sharp intakes of breath were literally audible on opening night. This sets up the second half of the play, which explores the nature of genius and trust.

Hal, by now Catherine's lover, and Claire must decide whether the unstable rookie (who is a girl - perish the thought) or her completely dippy, over-the-hill dad has penned a theorem that everyone agrees will revolutionise the subject.

The play then builds to a far more satisfactory and moving ending than the movie, leaving the hope that this case of geek love might just be leading to a happy future for Catherine.

The whole team is to be congratulated in reviving a superb, beautifully constructed and scripted play, with a production that deserves to sell out the Arts Theatre for the duration of its run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher