Even the most trying moments in our lives are interspersed with absurdity and levity.
This is the truth most beautifully captured in Townsville Little Theatre’s latest offering, The Father. The Father is a One Act play that explores the challenges of dementia from the perspective of one man trying to keep his grasp on reality. Ageing Andre (Alan Cooke) moves in with his daughter Anne (Kath Hotschilt) and her husband Pierre (Matthew Palmer/Gerard Marano), because he can no longer manage on his own and has burned through a string of well-meaning carers already. Naturally, the stress of Andre’s slipping mind places pressure on all involved and the audience is taken through a sequence of events that provide a snapshot into their lives. The play doesn’t always make sense, and that is precisely the point.
As Andre, Alan Cooke delivers a delightful and heartbreaking performance that finds a heartening lightness in such a heavy topic. It could have been easy to play Andre as a victim, lost and confused, but Alan has taken an approach much truer to life, making Andre a proud and indignant man who is convinced that it is the world – not himself – that no longer makes sense. Alan gives us joy, fear, strength and frustration in this beautiful, three-dimensional performance.
Similarly, Kath Hotschilt brings Anne to life in a way that is sure to resonate with anyone who has witnessed dementia take hold of their own loved ones. Anne’s steady patience, marred by helpless frustration and a determination to help her father uphold his dignity, is both admirable and pitiable. Kath’s delivery of Anne’s monologue is especially gut-wrenching and I could feel each goosebump blister up my shoulder as Kath expertly demonstrated the power of two trembling hands falling still and silent on a blackened stage.
Matthew Palmer and Gerard Marano are a perfect pair of Pierres – stepping into the role at different times as Andre’s wits allowed. Both Matthew and Gerard inject a threatening intensity into their performances that create a thick tension whenever either appears on stage. While they both make it easy to dislike Pierre for his increasing impatience, they’ve refrained from turning him into a total villain, giving us well-timed glimpses into Pierre’s love for Anne and his own difficult position.
As Laura, Pierre’s new carer, Tamika Crane offers a youthful positivity to the role which contrasts effectively with the weathered frustration of every other character. There is a lovely chemistry between Tamika and Alan, making it a joy to watch them together; although I can’t help but feel a tinge of regret for what may lie ahead for their blossoming friendship if the script’s foreshadowing is to be heeded.
Helen Burbidge rounds out the main cast, stepping into the roles of various characters throughout the show as Andre’s mind fails him. At each juncture, Helen brings a flippant ‘all-is-well-here’ air to the characters which is perfectly fitting of this show.
Lastly, Sadie and Asha Stephenson make their theatre debuts in a short flashback that prefaces the show and provides some context for Andre’s later ramblings. Congratulations to Sadie and Asha for stepping onto the stage.
Time is a recurring motif throughout The Father and the show’s non-liner sequence of events serves to remind us that it can be a cruel master. Director Donna Clayton-Smith has built terrifically on this theme by subtly adding to it through clever choices including a clock without hands, Pierre’s exaggerated checking of his watch and a set that changes before our eyes and around the characters without the need for black-outs, creating a real sense of inevitability. The set itself – created by Stephen Smith and Glenn Shield – is simple and elegant and it’s changes masterfully carried out by Bridget Douglas and Annika Brice.
I am told that there were a few fumbled lines at last night’s opening performance but it is a credit to the experienced and talented cast (and perhaps a benefit of a script that is deliberately ambiguous) that I could not detect a single one.
This is truly a terrific piece of theatre, which seemed to stir some meaningful conversations among audience members following the show. While the subject matter is indeed weighty, the cast and production team have balanced this with the appropriate servings of warmth and humour to deliver a highly enjoyable show.
Do not be put off by its ‘seriousness’.
Townsville Little Theatre’s production of The Father runs until 7 December 2019.