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London Theatre Reviews

NOTHING AS IT SEEMS

By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

Florian Zeller's enigmatic play brilliantly blurs the lines of what is real and what is fiction.

The union between Europe’s Florian Zeller and Britain’s Christopher Hampton is a win-win for Anglo-Franco relations – regardless of the current E.U. controversy. 36-year-old Zeller, hitherto largely unknown outside Paris, has – thanks to the success of The Father – become a wunderkind on both sides of the Atlantic. In London his breakthrough play stars Kenneth Cranham, who received an Olivier best actor award, and on Broadway Frank Langella, who recently won a Tony in the same category.
 
Enigmatically structured, The Father takes an affecting look at an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer's. The fragile contours of what is real and what isn’t are deliberately blurred and give the piece a baffling, intriguing, dreamlike quality as Zeller probes a broken mind.
 
In his play The Truth – first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory and Tricycle Theatre and now securely ensconsed in the West End – Zeller again offers a theatrical conundrum in the form of a French boulevard comedy as we watch the sexual machinations of Michel (Alexander Hanson), a successful Parisian businessman who is having an affair with Alice (Frances O’Connor), the wife of his jobless best friend Paul (Robert Portal). Completing the quartet is Laurence (Tanya Franks), Michel’s wife.
 
The premise couldn’t be simpler – but don’t be fooled. Zeller continues his fascination with what is real, what isn’t, what is truth, who’s telling lies, and why. As the playwright himself acknowledges, there’s more than a touch of Pinter’s Betrayal on hand. Not only Pinter, but also the groundbreaking Italian experimentalist Luigi Pirandello, who believed that “we need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality, which, from time to time, is discovered to be vain and illusory.”
 
Illusion, delusion, male vanity and the lies people tell (some for good, some not) comingle in this 90-minute roller-coaster ride in which truth and fabrication create a comic yet at times serious narrative in which nothing is ever what it seems, and in which the protagonists, as they did in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, are constantly playing games.
 
In The Truth, it is Michel on whom the soupcon of narrative hinges. Brilliantly played by Hanson, Michel is the least likeable of the quartet. Yet with such a jaw-dropping capacity for deception and a shameless ability to blame others for the worst of his lies and indiscretions, it is hard not to warm to his sheer unadulterated chutzpah.
 
Right from the start, when we first encounter him in bed with Alice in some anonymous Paris hotel room between afternoon office appointments, there isn’t a smidgen of guilt in him. If anything, he actively embraces the fact that Alice’s husband is his best friend.
 
As the affair escalates and Laurence and Paul are predictably sucked into it, Zeller’s variations on the theme of marital infidelity reach psychological levels most domestic farces rarely approach, and the questions Zeller asks (without supplying answers) make The Truth not only one of the most humorous plays in a long while, but one of the most thought-provoking as well.
 
There are no weaknesses in the cast, with Frances O’Connor’s demanding and unfulfilled Alice, Tanya Franks’ dignified, stalwart Laurence and Robert Portal’s solidly blokish Paul all rising to this happy occasion and serving Hampton’s lean adaptation most tellingly.
 
The chic minimalistic set – functioning as a hotel bedroom, a doctor’s office and both couples’ Parisienne apartments – is by Lizzie Clachan, and the seamless direction by Lindsay PosnerVive la France!