Friday, 25 September 2015

‘The emotion comes with the Alzheimer’s…partly because the past and the future are no longer there’

Kenneth Cranham tells Audrey Gillan how he feels about playing a man with memory loss in his new play, The Father, growing older and being forced to cut down on wine…

Written by Audrey Gillan
Kenneth Cranham is sitting quietly reading the paper in a pub in Islington when I arrive. He stands up to greet me in shorts and sandals, his casual outfit dressed up with a knotted cravat. Cracking a broad smile, he hugs me, takes my hand and says: ‘Shall we go home?’

Home is a glorious old town house a few streets away, all dark wooden shutters, fabulous stained-glass windows and large rooms, one of which is a somewhat dishevelled study where the actor goes to think and learn his lines. First he and his wife – the actress Fiona Victory – lived in the upstairs flat, but over the years they bought floor after floor until they owned the whole magical building. At the kitchen table Ken picks at a packet of nuts and we chat – we’re somehow old friends, having bonded over a love of food and restaurants, a friendship that often takes me by surprise when the phone rings with Ken just wanting to shoot the breeze.

But today we’re here to talk about The Father, the play by Florian Zeller, which is just about to make its West End transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre. In it he plays Andre, an 80-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer’s who can’t quite remember what he did for a living (a tap dancer maybe, or per- haps an engineer), which daughter he lives with and who her husband is.

I first saw the play at the Ustinov in Bath, travelling on the train with Ken to the spa town where he was boarding with a theatrical landlady during the run. It was an astonishing performance, Ken at times is nimble and alert, at other times befuddled and mystified, his portrayal of the confusion and horror of a truly terrible disease bringing tears to many an eye in the house. With 850,000 people suffering from dementia in the UK it strikes a chord for many.

That first production of The Father received remarkable reviews, which at the time the actor refused to read for fear it would jinx his performance. The Guardian said: ‘Best of all is Kenneth Cranham’s Andre: ferocious, charming, playful, infuriating and increasingly broken. When he cries, “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves,” the heart cracks for him. And for all our possible future selves.’

Having transferred from Bath to The Tricycle, Ken allowed himself to read the critics. He laughs: ‘I’ve done it 95 times now and I am doing it another 80 times, it is not set in stone but it is quite so the reviews will not influence my performance now.’ The various productions have garnered a total of eight five-star reviews.

Cranham is perhaps most widely known for Shine On Harvey Moon, or to a younger audience for roles in films like Layer Cake, Maleficent and Gangster No 1. But it is his many theatrical performances of which he is most proud: Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloan and Loot, JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Such roles led him to Broadway.

KennethCranham-Sept25-02-590Clockwise from top left: Kenneth Cranham in The Father. Kenneth Cranham In An Inspector Calls. In Shine On Harvey Moon

He committed to The Father in the hope that it would grow, and so his wish has been fulfilled with the opening at Wyndham’s. ‘When I read it I was very moved by it and thought it would be a very moving experience for an audience and that’s something I’m perhaps most interested in. It’s also a very funny play. The emotion comes with the Alzheimer’s: Andre is without falter, he hasn’t got any real knowledge of what he’s saying.

‘With that comes a freedom that’s often fascinated me in my own life. When people I’ve known have been struck down, by strokes and the like, they’ve often been much more pleasant company than they’ve ever been, partly because the past and the future are no longer there. That’s part of the story, that some of the time he’s very sweet and other times he’s horrible.’

The play itself is out of sequence and so there are a lot of ‘blackouts’, with actors waiting in the dark for prompts. Being in the character of a man losing his memory meant Ken sometimes felt he had lost his, too. ‘It was strange, sometimes I had to be pushed around during blackouts and told what the next scene was. They’d say to me “you’re in the chair for the next scene” and then once I was in the chair I would know what the scene was,’ he explains.

A totem in the play is Andre’s watch, something he loses or thinks he has lost throughout. ‘I lost my own watch during the run. It’s partly to do with having to take off your own watch and put another one on during the show. I’ve never found it again.’

He goes on to say, ‘I rather like Andre and I think I understand him, I think he’s got to a point in his life where he thinks, “Okay, I keep losing my watch and I forget things but everything’s fine and I’m going to have a really good time.” He can’t understand why things are taken away from him and everyone seems to find his situation so difficult.’

Ken can identify with having something taken away from him. A diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes last year meant that this collector of fine wines was almost heartbroken, the cellar he relished exploring in the sybaritic pasture of later life denied him.

‘I can only have a 125ml glass of wine every now and then – that’s just an egg cup. It’s tiny. It’s like sticking your tongue in it,’ he says ruefully.

But with this newly enforced diet and lifestyle came some upsides: he has lost three stone in weight, looks years younger and feels pretty great.

The day after our meeting I receive a text: ‘What was the name of that new restaurant on Upper Street you said you were going to? Love Ken xx’.

Like Andre, a little forgetful, perhaps, but as with the role he plays, Kenneth Cranham is a character who is still very much fun.

The Father runs from 30 September to 21 November at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2: 0844-482 5138, www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk



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