Florian Zeller’s The Forest – review

Toby Stephens and Paul McGann share the honours as a man on the edge

★★★

Production photo of Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in Florian Zeller's The Forest at Hampstead Theatre in London 2022
Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in The Forest. Photo: The Other Richard

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has become familiar to British audiences thanks to plays like The Truth, The Lie, The Height Of The Storm and the trilogy of The Mother, The Father and The Son. His new play The Forest is the first to receive its world premiere in the UK,  and comes on the back of the award-winning film of The Father with Anthony Hopkins.

So you probably know Florian Zeller’s approach to playwriting. It started as an innovative way of getting inside people’s minds. In The Father, it was a brain confused by dementia, in The Mother, a mid life crisis, in The Son a depressed teenager. He achieves this by having the characters act out their lies, self deception, false memories, fears and desires, often repeating scenes with variations of dialogue or even characters, and none of it is necessarily in a linear narrative. So it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. Throughout his plays, we are asking ourselves What is the truth? What actually happened? For which there may or may not be an answer.

As time has gone on, what was surprising and original has become a signature style. It may even be in danger of becoming a cliché- but not yet! Once again, Zeller brings alive a potentially mundane story.

In The Forest, the subject is a married hospital consultant who has been having an affair with a younger woman. As she demands that he legitimises their relationship, he is overtaken by fear about what that would do to his marriage and career (the two of which are tied together, at least in his head), not to mention guilt at betraying his wife.

From the start, we are in familiar Zeller territory. We are plunged into a confusing jigsaw of scenes in which we see the adulterer’s changing memories, fantasies and fears. The title refers to a story about a prince out hunting, who in pursuit of a stag that ultimately disappears, becomes lost in a forest.

Each of the three acts (there’s no interval by the way) begins with the same or at least a similar scene. The first scene sees Pierre, referred to in the cast of characters as Man 1, and played byToby Stephens, arriving home. His wife is clearly agitated. Their daughter’s long term boyfriend has been having an affair. Pierre talks to the girl about his indiscretion. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’ll work itself out’ he says. Pierre uses a conversation with the daughter to talk about his thoughts about a man having affair. Perhaps his memory is playing tricks because on the second occasion, the daughter isn’t there and he talks directly to his wife. This time he’s talking about their child’s reaction, indicating that he is concerned about his wife’s reaction to his own affair. The third time, the daughter barely gets a mention but the room has filled with flowers.

The no-strings affair is now tied up with his marriage and career

Then there’s scene two. A middle-aged man, referred to as Man 2 and played by Paul McGann, is in bed with a young woman. We’re not in doubt for very long that this is also Pierre. I’m guessing that, in his mind, Pierre has separated his affair from the rest of his life. In other words, he becomes a different person, a kind of alter ego. Before long, we are seeing the same or a similar scene but with Toby Stephens, just as Man 2 is Pierre in the third iteration of the opening scene. This indicates I think that the once no-strings affair is now tied up with this marriage and career.

Toby Stephens is brilliant as Man 1. His ready smile becomes a nervous grin. He leans back which at first seems relaxed but eventually looks like he’s reeling from blows. Paul McGann holds his own as Man2, showing a brittle harshness that soon collapses into panic.

Pierre’s character is complex and rounded. The other characters less so, perhaps because they’re part of his memory and imagination.

The treatment of the Girlfriend in the first bedroom scene is a case in point. When she gets out of bed and you see her partly naked before she puts on a shirt. Perfectly normal in real life of course but these days, you rarely see gratuitous nudity on stage, so we must assume there is a good reason for this. Actually, in the script, she is fully naked for the whole scene. I take it that this underlines that Pierre saw her as no more than someone he has sex with. She’s only given a name later as he starts to take her threat more seriously. Excellent as Angel Coulby’s acting is, there is little personality for her to get her teeth into.

Gina McKee makes the most of her limited role

Despite the limitations of the script, the glorious Gina McKee shows fine acting skill in managing to suggest there’s a lot going on the Wife’s head. Through a combination of strangled speech and sideways glances, she conveys a lack of passion that might have been a reason why Pierre strayed, insecurity, and the possibility that she suspects something.

Anna Fleischle‘s set is in three parts: a living room, a bedroom above the living room, and an office to the side. Each setting is invisible until the lights come up on it. The first two are built with tremendous attention to detail, and this naturalistic setting helps suggest that all that is going on in Pierre’s brain is happening while he continues to live out an everyday life.

The office is the exception. It’s pretty bare and seems to be where Pierre’s conversations with his conscience take place, or possibly interrogations by the police. He is being held in the room by a white faced man in black, chillingly played by Finbar Lynch. He looks like a character from an early horror film and wheedles Pierre with questions as he alternates between a good cop and bad cop style from a police procedural. The biggest question being ‘What happened?’

So what did happen? How did the affair end? What was the fate of the Girlfriend? Well, we can never be quite certain. There are some dramatic and shocking moments which turn this play into almost a thriller as well as a who-dun-it. Director Jonathan Kent is to be congratulated for the pace, and imbuing all that goes on with an almost Hitchcockian suspense, helped by Isobel Waller-Bridge‘s edgy sound design.

By the end, we have been given some explanations (or are they?). The problem for this and other Zeller plays is that the truth, if and when it’s discovered, may not be as interesting or exciting as the process that led to the revelation.

The Forest continues at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March 2022

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producer

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Prism starring Robert Lindsay – review

A Masterclass in Playwriting and Acting

★★★★★

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Prism at Hampstead Theatre (touring autumn 2019) is a double pleasure. It marks a welcome return for Terry Johnson, author of Dead Funny, Hysteria and Insignificance with his first full length play in ten years. And it gives Robert Lindsay the chance to get his teeth into a role worthy of his great acting talent.

Robert Lindsay in Prism at Hampstead Theatre reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Robert Lindsay in Prism at Hampstead Theatre

Based on the life of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Prism tells a story of dementia. It shows us Cardiff’s uncertain grip on present day reality and, in a ‘wow’ moment of revelation, we get to see the world as he is seeing it – memories of his life in the movies. On top of that, we are given a fascinating insight into the art of lighting and treated to some magical effects.

Terry Johnson’s understanding of the art of theatre is peerless. He describes himself as a ‘dramatist’ and rightly so. Here he has directed as well as written this play and has created a pretty much perfect piece of theatre, which is ironic for a play about a filmmaker.

It has sharp dialogue, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it does things only theatre can do. There is a moment when, as the scenery moves, Jack steps from a location in his memory of the past to his present location but still acting out in his mind a past situation which we have already seen from the others’ point of view. It could only work in a live performance.

Robert Lindsay is one of our great stage actors

It’s a play full of metaphors for the process of growing old and dying. Cardiff fears blindness more than death but we realise the obliteration of his brain will be as bad. A prism is the key to making colour filming work just as the hippocampus is the key to a functioning brain. The ‘dying of the light’ as night approaches was Dylan Thomas’ metaphor for death: here it is literally the moment when you can no longer film.

Above all, this is an opportunity to see one of our great stage actors. Robert Lindsay has done a lot of work in light entertainment from the musical Me And My Girl to TV’s My Family to the recent stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He has done it brilliantly but perhaps his ability to entertain us has made us forget the depth of acting of which he is capable. This is a timely reminder that his combination of rich voice, rugged good looks, timing and sheer presence are to be treasured.

Claire Skinner, Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night all provide excellent support but the evening belongs to Robert Lindsay. I hope Prism gets a West End transfer. This is a production that everyone who loves theatre should see.

News added June 2019

Prism starring Robert Lindsay but with some changes to the rest of the cast is touring during autumn 2019:

BIRMINGHAM REPERTORY (3 – 12 OCTOBER), RICHMOND THEATRE (14 – 19 OCTOBER), NOTTINGHAM THEATRE ROYAL (21 – 26 OCTOBER), EDINBURGH KINGS (28 OCTOBER – 2 NOVEMBER), CHICHESTER FESTIVAL THEATRE (4 – 9 NOVEMBER), GUILFORD YVONNE ARNAUD THEATRE (11 – 16 NOVEMBER), CAMBRIDGE ARTS (18 – 23 NOVEMBER), MALVERN FESTIVAL THEATRE (25 – 30 NOVEMBER)

Watch my review on YouTube

The Humans – Hampstead Theatre – Review

The Humans exposes the fears at the heart of a modern family

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Production photo from The Humans at Hampstead Theatre
The Humans at Hampstead Theatre

I love a family drama and they don’t come better than this. The Humans by Stephen Karam won four Tony awards when it was on Broadway. Now the original production directed by Joe Mantello has been imported with the same cast.

As a portrayal of a middle class family, it is spot on. Two parents meet with at their daughter’s new apartment in New York. Also in attendance are the daughter’s partner, sister and grandmother. The ensemble acting is terrific and they are absolutely believable as a bickering but loving family.

Click here for my YouTube review on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell are the mother and father disappointed by how life has turned out and frightened for the future of their family. Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck show a wonderful rapport as the sisters, both unhappy in how their careers are going. The partner could be there simply as a device to enable the family to explain what’s going in but Arian Moayed makes him a real character, nervous and desperate to please and placate.

A play about fear enhanced by a spooky atmosphere

This is a play about the fears that engulf so many of today’s middle class families- fear of failure, unemployment, poverty, loss of love, illness, dementia, death. You can see how these fears weigh physically on all the actors’ shoulders. They’re most manifest in the father, magnificently portrayed by Reed Birney, and they lead to a big revelation at the end.

Production photo of The Humans at hampstead Theatre London
The Humans at Hampstead Theatre

The set designed by David Zinn is a realistic, naturalistic two floor gloomy apartment in New York which the couple have only just moved into. Their furniture has yet to arrive, so, although it is their home, it has a temporary, un-homely feel, like they could depart at any moment. This contributes to a feeling of spookiness that is ratcheted up by frightening noises from above and lights going out, suggesting darkness could descend at any moment.

All of this seems to say that while the causes of their fears may have names- the recession, globalisation, the technical revolution, ageing, and so on- these are forces as mysterious and uncontrollable as the gods and ghosts our ancestors believed in.

I found the play petered out a little at the end but I am so grateful to Hampstead Theatre for providing the opportunity to see this wonderful play.

The Humans is performing at Hampstead Theatre until 13 October 2018.

Watch the review of The Humans from One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube here-

Pick of 2018 Theatre Shows

Promotional image of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth at National Theatre London
Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre. Photo: Jack Davison

I had a great year of theatre going in 2017. My best evening out was at the Soho Theatre where I saw Mr Swallow in Houdini. It was an hour of continuous laughter at its cleverness, clowning and sheer madness.

As for actual comedy drama, I really enjoyed The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier and James Graham’s Labour Of Love with Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig but outstanding for me was the revival of Joe Orton’s Loot at Park Theatre and The Watermill Newbury (where I saw it), now uncensored and funnier than ever.

The best musical I saw, Follies and An American In Paris notwithstanding, was On The Town at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre.

The best drama was the revival of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton. In fact there were many great acting performances this year- I’d also pick out Imelda Staunton again in Follies and Robert Lindsay in Prism but the crown must go to Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Looking forward to 2018

If 2017 was a good year, 2018 looks like being even better. There are so many wonderful prospects that it’s going to be very hard for we theatre lovers to choose what to see. Here’s my choice.

And straightway I’m having to choose between two productions of Macbeth. My money’s on Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff at the National Theatre (26 February – 12 May) but there’s no denying the  prospect of Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company (13 March – 18 September) in Stratford is hard to resist.

Promotional image of Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre
Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre

There are some fabulous musicals on their way. Tony (Angels In America) Kushner’s Caroline, or Change with Sharon D Clarke was rapturously received in Chichester. In 2018, it reappears in the lovely Hampstead Theatre (12 March – 21 April). Strictly Ballroom The Musical which I saw and loved a year ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse gets a well deserved London run at the Piccadilly Theatre (29 March – 21 July). The emotionally charged winner of five Tony Awards, Fun Home has its UK premiere at Young Vic (18 June – 1 September).

There’s a star studded production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party appropriately at the Harold Pinter Theatre (9 January – 14 April). When I say starstudded, the cast includes Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan to name but three.

Promotional image of Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court
Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court

I thought Carey Mulligan was wonderful in Skylight so I’m looking forward to her return to the West End in a one woman play by Dennis Kelly called Girls And Boys which describes the unravelling of a relationship. That’s at the Royal Court (8 February – 17 March).

Alfred Molina reprises his 2009 success playing the painter Mark Rothko in Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre (4 May – 28 July). It will again be directed by Michael Grandage and will also star Alfred Enoch.

Near to where I live, Nuffield Southampton Theatres open their exciting city centre space with a new play by local lad Howard Brenton. The Shadow Factory looking at Southampton in the Second World War runs from 7 February to 3 March.

Happy theatregoing!