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A CurtainUp London Review
The Height of the Storm

"There's always something scandalous about the truth! — Mrs S.
The Height of the Storm
Eileen Atkins as Madeline (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Florian Zeller's acclaimed play The Father looked at the dementia of a man from the inside out. Zeller's latest play The Height of the Storm is set in a French country house of elegant proportions and high ceilings and is full of conundrum. Madeline (Eileen Atkins) and André (Jonathan Pryce) have been together for 50 years but a bouquet of flowers arrives at their home without a card and already Zeller is making us question why the flowers have been sent and who they are meant to console or comfort?

Ostensibly this is a family situation where the younger generation of two daughters, Anne the organising one (Amanda Drew) and Elise the romantic one (Anna Madeley), have gathered to sort out the very large house occupied by their parents. Madeline and André drift in and out of life onstage as the audience starts to question whether one or both of them has dementia or even whether one of them is deceased.

Because André has the same name as the father with dementia in The Father, we are inclined to think that it may be Madeline who is no longer with us but Anne will have a conversation with her mother which makes us question everything. Anne is going through her writer father's private diaries with a view to publishing a book but she will uncover a dark secret.

The characters refer to a storm that has happened overnight but as the play develops, it is clear that the height of the storm is also in the present as the daughters challenge their parents' or parent's continuing living arrangements in the large house. They allude to a huge discussion the night before which at least one parent seems to have forgotten. They fret over how André will get his bread from the boulangerie and he protests that he eats biscottes not bread, a kind of packet dried toast, but in any case has Ocado or the like not branched out its home deliveries to the French countryside?

Of course the daughters' motive for one or both of their parents to move may be the equity, that capital tied up in the large country house. The arrival late on in the play of Elise's latest boyfriend, the slippery Paul (James Hillier), seems to confirm that the house might soon be up for sale.

Anthony Ward's beautiful tall set is colour washed in duck egg blue. We can glimpse the stuffed shelves of the library through the kitchen door and the huge foxed glass panes of the mirrors in the sitting room.

These are the practicalities of old age but what Zeller's play and Jonathan Kent's direction do exceptionally well is in the realm of the more ethereal in the loss of the companionship that was half a century of marriage. Eileen Atkins is refreshingly sardonic as she says, "I can't be doing with all these flowers!" She is harsh on her pedestrian daughter Anne and asks, "What would he think with you rummaging around in his papers?" Eileen Atkins has lost none of her power as an actor creating a woman who we all believe in and have a fondness for.

Jonathan Pryce as André is less flegmatic showing real flustering anger when a daughter asks a chanced upon woman (Lucy Cohu) to tea but this anger is in defence of another's feelings. André is deep and thoughtful and realises the "ducks" of the lake at the retirement home euphemistically called "the Blue House" will turn to "vultures" as he resists the joint efforts of his daughters. "I'm an old plant in an old pot. I shan't be uprooted." He refers elliptically to his daughters' visit, building "a fortress against alarms and excursions".

The translator Christopher Hampton says that he only understands Zeller's plays on viewing them for the second time. "I didn't have a clue what was happening the first time I saw any of Zeller's plays but when I saw them a second time, they all became beautifully clear." As critics we are expected to give an opinion on first viewing! I didn't feel I didn't understand The Height of the Storm only that "il y a du brouillard". I am foggy as to whether Madeline and André were both or singly alive and both or singly demented Does it matter if it's in your imagination? Do I need to be reminded that theatre isn't real? One thing is sure: Pryce and Atkins are at the top of their game creating characters that stay in your psyche.

Links to Florian Zeller's other plays on Curtain Up
The Father on Broadway
The Father in London
The Truth
The Lie

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The Height of the Storm
Written by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Eileen Atkins, Anna Madeley, Amanda Drew, Lucy Cohu, James Hillier
Design: Anthony Ward
Sound Design: Paul Groothuis
Composer: Gary Yershon
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Running time: One Hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0844 482 515
Booking to 1st December 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th October 2018 performance at the Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DA (Tube: Leicester Square)
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