Tabard Theatre – until 24 October 2015
Guest reviewer: Liz Dyer
Playwright David Auburn‘s best-known work, Proof, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001, along with a multitude of other awards. It’s been produced on Broadway and in the West End, and made into a Hollywood movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. So it’s no surprise that I had pretty high expectations going into Front Foot Theatre’s new production, directed by Sebastien Blanc. But I still wasn’t expecting to be quite so powerfully affected by this emotional rollercoaster of a play, particularly as it deals with two subjects I don’t know much about: mental illness and mathematics.
Proof is the story of Catherine, who, though naturally gifted, has given up everything, including her education, to care for her father Robert. He’s a brilliant mathematician, but for several years has been living with a condition called hypergraphia, a compulsive need to write. On her 25th birthday, faced with the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire, and the constant presence of Hal, a former student of Robert’s who’s studying his old notebooks, Catherine begins to fear that her father’s intellectual ability may not be the only thing she’s inherited from him.
Auburn‘s script is beautifully crafted, keeping our attention focused on the characters and their relationships with each other, so that when the plot twists come, we’re caught completely unawares. As we begin to question how much of what we’re seeing is actually real, flashbacks fill in the gaps and help us understand how the different characters have got to this point. There are some particularly moving scenes between Catherine and Robert, which highlight their complicated relationship and the similarities – and differences – between the two of them.
Photo Credit Camilla Greenwell
Michael Leopold’s back yard set provides Catherine with a safe space between the house – stiflingly hot and filthy, we learn, with radiators that clank in the night and piles of books everywhere – and the unknown perils of the outside world. With two possible exits, one into the house, and one out into the street, Catherine’s now faced with a choice as to which path she wants to take from this turning point in her life.
The cast is led by Julia Papp, who gives a powerfully emotional performance, capturing Catherine’s extreme fragility and carrying the audience with her as her mood veers between infectious joy and utter despair. She’s joined by Kim Hardy as anxious, loveable geek Hal, who always seems to be choosing his words carefully and yet somehow still manages to put his foot in it. The tentative relationship between Hal and Catherine is lovely to see, offering her a rare chance to finally enjoy something normal in her extraordinary life.
Photo Credit Camilla Greenwell
Mary-Ann Cafferkey is great as Catherine’s humourless and well-to-do older sister Claire; her concern seems genuine, but reveals a total lack of understanding of what her sister’s going through, and a willingness to help only on her own terms. There’s also a quietly impressive performance from Tim Hardy as Robert, Catherine’s brilliant father, whose moments of calm lucidity and gentle humour (the pasta rant is particularly wonderful) contrast sharply with the distress and confusion he suffers as a result of his illness.
Proof is undoubtedly a beautifully written play, and Front Foot’s production is intimate and powerful. While the story deals with this one family, and we grow to care for each of the characters – even Claire – it also shines a light on the wider issue of mental health and its complexities. There are some references to maths, but nothing too heavy, so even if you hated maths at school, don’t let that put you off seeing this important and brilliant piece of theatre.