Jenny Belsey and John Dane in The Father – Photo Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

I have been consistently impressed by the quality of the productions from the Sewell Barn Theatre, who use their atmospheric setting to great effect in their latest offering. They are also often brave in their choice of play and with this work by Parisian Florian Zeller they tackle a difficult subject with skill and sensitivity.

First, a trigger warning. This play is about dementia, and the effect it has on sufferers and their families. If you have experience of this cruel condition you may find this a hard watch.

The genius of Zeller’s script is that he gives us an insight into the condition through the perceptions of the sufferer rather than of those close to him. This is achieved with great skill from both the actors and the set designers and stage managers. We meet André (John Dane) talking to his daughter Anne (Jenny Belsey) and at first all seems almost normal, with André coming over as a sprightly and independent man full of wit and stories. However as more characters come and go we find alarming direct contradictions between their varying interactions with André which leave him distressed and exasperated. Further, between every small scene the set changes incrementally, gradually losing all the meaningful ephemera of a long life. We soon realise that we are sharing André’s perceptions as he loses memory and the ability to understand what is happening around him and to him. It is a startling moment for the audience.

His confusion is turned into terror when his increasingly difficult behaviour leads to a violent reaction from Anne’s partner Pierre (Trevor Burton) who is resentful of André’s effect on Anne as she struggles to cope with his care needs. Or is it not Pierre?

This sensitive production may not be happy, but it does have many funny moments and is actually quite helpful in understanding how to cope with dementia as both a sufferer and as family and carers. With the starving of funds to local authorities many families will be familiar now with the struggle of such caring responsibilities with very little help or support available. Some versions of dementia have a cruel propensity to change the character of sufferers which makes life particularly tough for family members trying to hold on to the detailed patterns of family life. Director Chris Bealey makes clever use of a complex and changing set to emphasise this growing loss of familiarity, stretching the tie with his daughter Anne who is always left with the caring burden as one nurse after another is chased out by André’s odd behaviour. When one pretty young nurse Laura (Lauren Baston) appears he flirts with her at first but later thinks she is Anne’s dead sister. Two other cast members Neil Auker and Jo Parker Sessions play characters simply described as ‘man’ and ‘woman’. They interchange with others around André to represent his growing confusion and inability to distinguish individuals accurately, or even at all.

All six cast members give exceptionally strong performances. John Dane is convincing as a once proud man struggling with a loss of identity and awareness while still trying to hang on to what always mattered to him. The other five cast members handle the transitions between characters so well that at first you doubt your own sanity – which is the point of this play. Go and see this play, and remember it next time you cast your vote, local or national. We are supposed to be a civilised society, but we regularly fail people with dementia and those who support them in their everyday struggle with a condition that only gets worse. It might seem odd, but even though this play covers a difficult subject it is an enjoyable performance superbly delivered.

The Father is on at Sewell Barn Theatre until 12th March. For tickets and further information go to




© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 5:3:22