The Mother

Florian Zeller, in a new translation by Christopher Hampton
Theatre Royal Bath Productions
Tricycle Theatre

Gina McKee as The Mother, Anne Credit: Mark Douet
Richard Clothier as The Father, Peter and Frances McNamee as The Girl, Élodie Credit: Mark Douet
Gina McKee as The Mother, Anne and William Postlethwaite as The Son, Nicholas Credit: Mark Douet

Coincidentally and fortuitously, The Mother opened on the day on which Kenneth Cranham, the star of its companion piece The Father, was garlanded with the Critics' Circle award as the Best Actor during the previous year.

On this occasion, it is Gina McKee who takes centre stage and delivers a deeply thought-out and moving performance in another play that squarely looks mental health issues in the eye.

Miss McKee plays Anne, a woman in her late 40s who is still struggling to come to terms with life as a housewife after her grown-up son and daughter have flown the coop.

The 90 minutes cover a very small period of time starting just before Richard Clothier as her husband Peter is about to embark on a four-day seminar in Leicester, the play having been anglicised as it was translated by Christopher Hampton.

It inevitably takes time to come to terms with facts and relationships in Laurence Boswell's striking production for Theatre Royal Bath, since the drama and many of the lines are repeated for sometimes devastating effect.

The opening takes place in a startlingly white family living room courtesy of designer Mark Bailey, the brightness and furnishings leaching out symbolically as the story moves forward.

Here, a vibrant Anne confuses both Peter and viewers, not to mention herself at times, as she asks and interrogates him about his day and the forthcoming trip, then accuses him of adultery, though whether in her head or directly might be a matter for debate.

This scene, like the others throughout the evening, is then repeated with a muted, downbeat Anne going through the motions without seeming to care about what she or anybody else is doing.

What comes through strongly is this woman’s claustrophobic love for 25-year-old son Nicholas, played by William Postlethwaite. It is easy to understand the young man's reluctance to visit his old home but, following an argument with his partner, that is exactly what he does. The consequences are unpredictable, which is a direct reflection of Anne's behaviour.

The last character to appear is Francis McNamee in the role of Nicholas's partner Élodie, a strong-willed beauty who seems fearful of the mother's influence on her son.

These themes are explored in minute detail throughout a play that, like The Father, attempts to show through their own eyes somebody struggling to come to terms with their often hazy grip on the world.

Whether Anne's constant confusion is related to genuine mental illness, her little blue pills or alcohol is never made clear, although it is also possible that any combination of those three factors might have contributed to her deteriorating state.

While the supporting cast do the necessary, the plaudits will inevitably be directed towards Gina McKee, who embraces a difficult role with great deftness and a high degree of empathy.

The Mother never quite achieves the coherence of The Father but is still a fascinating example of contemporary European drama and a reminder of how little current work from France makes it across the channel.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher