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Playwright Florian Zeller’s work often talks of themes of uncertainty, of shifting reality and two sides of the same coin.
In The Height of the Storm – wonderfully translated by the award-winning Christopher Hampton – these themes have never been more prevalent, as audiences are invited into the lives of aging couple André and Madeleine in a deeply moving study of love and loss.
André and Madeleine have been married for 50 years, raising two daughters – Anne and Elise – and living together in their perfectly pleasant home in France. Madeleine tends the vegetable patch in the back garden and gets up early in the morning to walk to town and go shopping; while André, a once-famous writer, is troubled by his worsening dementia – his eldest daughter has returned to the family home to work through his diaries at the behest of his editor, in hope of releasing some previously unpublished works.
From here, The Height of the Storm becomes an elusive enigma of a play, as lines are blurred between what is real and what is not. In one reality, André is struggling to come to terms with the fact the Madeleine has, in fact, recently deceased; in another she seems perfectly alive, talking of the promise she made to her husband to outlive him; in other stolen moments, the proposed publication of André’s diaries are presented as a posthumous gift to the world, suggesting it is André who as passed away, and not his wife.
The crux of The Height of the Storm’s success is the way Zeller presents the puzzlement of memory, and the pain and joy that can be brought about by remembering or, in some cases, misremembering events from your life.
Olivier Award winners Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins star as André and Madeleine. Daughters Anne and Elise are played by Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley respectively; supporting cast members James Hillier and Lucy Cohu play roles that transform before the audience’s eyes as the realities around them shift through the play’s elusive tone.
Pryce and Atkins give masterclasses in acting here; they’re simply a joy to watch. It’s exactly what you might expect from two consummate professionals, but it’s the understated way they play their roles that really work, combining humour with loss and confusion with aplomb – in less experienced hands, André and Madeleine could easily become caricatures.
Jonathan Kent’s stunning direction across Anthony Ward’s striking single set is breathtakingly good, while Hugh Vanstone’s magnificent lighting helps guide the audience through the tunnels of distorted reality, memory and truth in quite unexpected ways.
“Pryce and Atkins are magnetic” ★★★★ – The Guardian
“No dry eyes in nerve-jangling study of aging” ★★★★ – Evening Standard
“Two wonderfully watchable performances by top-class stage artists” ★★★★ – Daily Mail
“An 80-minute show that packs in more human life than many shows manage in three hours” ★★★★ – The Times
The Height of the Storm is now open at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London, running until 1 December 2018.
Get your tickets for The Height Of The Storm now through Ticketmaster.co.uk.