Melissa Blease reviews The Height of the Storm, starring Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 29 September

Bereavement, dementia, deceit, ageing, divided loyalties and the philosophies behind the concept of love aren’t easy subjects to tackle – and The Height of the Storm couldn’t be described as an easy watch. And yet, you won’t want to look away. What makes this compelling family drama so fascinatingly engrossing is the sheer, unadulterated humanity that keeps a family on the verge of being torn apart by a hurricane of emotional histrionics firmly anchored to totally believable, achingly tender territory.

French playwright and novelist Florian Zeller (The Father; The Mother; The Truth) is a master of the art of acutely engaging dialogue, and highly regarded for creating acutely engaging characters – and his new play (translated by Christopher Hampton) firmly bolsters Zeller’s reputation as one of the most enthralling contemporary playwrights of the 21st century.

Madeleine and André have been in love for more than 50 years, and a weekend visit from their grown up daughters Anne and Elise must surely be a commonplace, run of the mill occurrence, causing little disruption to a home environment that’s as comfortably ‘lived in’ as an elderly long term couple are. And yet, this particular weekend, the atmosphere is as is laden with disconcerting chagrin as the air is heavy with the remnants of a storm from the previous night.

André is distracted, distant and confused. Madeleine is far too breezily unperturbed to be truly carefree; for her, life must carry on as normal, and yet she doesn’t seem able to work out exactly what her version of normal might be. Anne is desperately trying to keep some kind of control over the ‘situation’ by being bossy and taking charge; Elise is distancing herself from that situation by obsessing more on what her latest boyfriend Paul will or won’t be doing with (or without?) her than supporting whatever circumstances her sister is having such a hard time dealing with. As for the stranger who visits for tea in the middle of it all: she’s yet another clue that leads us to believe that all’s not well…

Our fly-on-the-wall perspective of this snapshot of dysfunctional yet somehow curiously comfortable family life doesn’t last long (less than 90 minutes, in fact) and for the first half of that, we’re in a state of increasingly ominous, portentous confusion. But when the befuddling fug finally lifts and our bearings become clear, everything makes imperfect sense.

Before he even utters his first lines, Jonathan Pryce (André) urges us to put our arms around him and make everything okay. We too feel his bewilderment; we want to be the compass that guides him through all the disorientation. But that role has been filled for a very long time by André’s wife. Eileen Atkins offers a masterclass in detail, detail, detail; whether peeling a mushroom, offering soothing advice to one of her daughters, reassuring her husband or raging against the temperamental storm around her, she’s calm but powerful, gentle and tenacious, vulnerable yet unbreakable. The pair are totally, utterly together, bound by life experience, compassion and deep, unswerving love.

Daughters Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Anna Madeley) each bear the weight of the subdued commotion equally, but in distinctly different ways; Drew’s armour of responsibility only barely shields her sense of grief; beneath a flimsy veneer of selfishness, Madeley’s despair is palpable. James Hillier as Elise’s unreadable boyfriend Paul and Lucy Cohu as The Woman (who comes to tea) both subtly tug the tensions ever tighter, trying (but overall, failing) to berth the increasingly exposed raft that a family is desperate to navigate through increasingly troubled waters in some kind of safe harbour of reality – but is there a safe harbour waiting for any of them?

Melancholy but somehow uplifting, unsettling but reassuring, and richly embroidered with strong, silken bonds of compassion tightly woven into the emotional turmoil that we’re so uncomfortably, relentlessly privy to, this beautiful work of art will linger long in your consciousness long after the storm has passed.

Image credit: Hugo Glendinning