Review: The Height of the Storm (Wyndham's Theatre)

Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins star in Florian Zeller’s drama

Jonathan Pryce and Amanda Drew in The Height of the Storm
Jonathan Pryce and Amanda Drew in The Height of the Storm
© Hugo Glendinning

At an after-show Q&A on its regional tour, an audience member opened the questions by suggesting that "there wasn't much drama" in The Height of the Storm.

Naturally the panel came to the play's defence, and there are certainly plenty of dramatic undercurrents swirling through this very sad story of a family disintegrating after loss. However, it's also a puzzling mix of hints and unresolved ideas, which perhaps reflect the mist and confusion of the dementia affecting Andre, a successful writer now almost overwhelmed by the changes threatening to flood his life.

What no one could argue with is the superb quality of the performances. Jonathan Pryce brings a brilliantly balanced mix of bewilderment and authority to Andre, as he struggles to cope with his two daughters' bright ideas about what's best for him. From the trembling hands to the mood swings, this is a poignant and compelling picture of a man clutching at a past life that's gone for good.

Eileen Atkins is Madeleine, his resolutely loyal, no-nonsense wife of 50 years and the bedrock of the family. In the programme notes, playwright Florian Zeller explains that his dialogue is 'deliberately very simple. What interests me is what's contained behind those words'. Whether the simple profundity of his play's closing scene could have been achieved without Atkins in the role is anyone's guess. But she is the beating heart of this show.

The two sisters coping with the family fallout are 'bossy' Anne, played with great sensitivity by Amanda Drew, and Anna Madeley as Elise, the daughter even their mother admits is the nicer of the two, but whose energies are now directed at keeping her new man, Paul.

James Hillier as Paul doesn't have much to say, but his wonderfully expressive shrugs, looks and demeanour make it crystal clear that this is a man who simply isn't worth Elise's efforts. And Lucy Cohu as the mystery woman who emerges from Andre's past has a warm, rather sly sensuality that allows Madeleine to surmise pretty quickly what the nature of their relationship may have been.

The design by Anthony Ward creates such a lovely house that you can well understand Andre's reluctance to leave it, while Hugh Vanstone's lighting is beautifully expressive.

Jonathan Kent's production achieves everything you could expect from this play, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton. But a comment overheard at the end – 'I think I understood what that was about…' – is a fair reflection on The Height of the Storm.