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STAGE REVIEW: There ain’t nothing like a dame

The Height of the Storm (Photograph: Hugo Glendinning) - Credit: Archant

‘A very boring play that is very well acted’. TIM WALKER reviews The Height of the Storm.

The first thing to be said about The Height of the Storm is that it is a very boring play. The second thing to be said about it is that it is very well acted.

I suppose Dame Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce, the stars of this desperately earnest, plodding production, could be relied upon to carry things off with aplomb in just about anything. It is just sad to see them pairing up for the first time on the stage in something quite as unutterably soporific as Florian Zeller’s piece about how an individual copes with getting old, loss of faculties and bereavement.

It starts off with Pryce silently looking out of the window of his book-lined rural home. Silence is these days an under-rated virtue in theatre. Pryce uses it very well to communicate a sense of despair about his situation. There has clearly been a death, but as his wife – played by Atkins – appears and he engages her in conversation, it’s not entirely clear whether he has lost her, or she has lost him.

Eventually it turns out to be the former case and the old boy is still chatting away to her because dementia has set in. I don’t mean to sound callous, but getting old isn’t, by and large, much fun. That we all know. The problem with this play is that it tells us nothing new and contains no great insights.

Theatre generally requires things to happen every now and again, and characters should occasionally get to say things that are clever or funny, or in some way memorable, or maybe educational, but Zeller doesn’t feel the need to give his audience anything of the kind during the 80 tortuously long minutes this show runs.

It all feels like looking through the keyhole of an elderly and recently bereaved neighbour: indulging not so much in voyeurism as grief porn. The brilliance of the acting actually makes this feeling all the more acute. Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley play the daughters who, in the modern way of 
the world, are fretting about what to do about their dad, without either of 
them actually wanting to be lumbered with him herself. The circumlocution they both employ in their conversations with him and each other is all too familiar.

One of the girls has a ghastly estate agent boyfriend in tow, who is played by James Hillier, with a wonderful sense of indifference to the sensitive situation he finds himself in.

Jonathan Kent directs with consummate professionalism and Anthony Ward’s set is magnificent. Atkins is, most of all, an unalloyed pleasure. With Maggie Smith and Judi Dench now reluctant to put themselves through the rigours of a long stage run, she is the last of the great dames we get to see treading the boards these days. I only wish, with all this talent assembled, something more worthwhile could have been found for them all to do.

• The Height of the Storm runs until December 1 at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London.