Florian Zeller’s hat trick of exceptional plays – The Father, The Mother, and now The Truth (just transferred to the West End)

NOMINATED FOR BEST NEW COMEDY – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

Seeing Florian Zeller’s The Truth UK premiere at the delectably named Menier Chocolate Factory has to be a theatre highlight of 2016 for me. What’s not to love about a theatre which used to be a chocolate factory? It recently premiered Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl, now on the West End. In fact it’s just been announced The Truth will also be showing at The Wyndham’s for a 10 week run.

Menier Chocolate Factory is only five minutes from London Bridge. You walk through the restaurant and descend to the theatre box office and cafe/bar, selling gin and tonic ice cream… The theatre seats are long comfy benches with plenty of leg room. We settled down with our glasses of prosecco included in the ticket price expecting a treat, and weren’t disappointed.

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The audience was generally on the mature side: a lady next to me nudging her partner with a chuckle at particularly hilarious lines, whilst a lady in front couldn’t contain her continual chortles. The laughing generally was loud and happy. Unsurprisingly Zeller does not-so-straightforward comedy just as brilliantly as the harrowing yet witty complexities of The Father and The Mother. It was by no means a straightforward play, of course, bearing Zeller’s now familiar signature of clever repetition and unstable meaning. Naming the play “The Truth” when in all of Zeller’s pieces you grapple with the words and wonder if they are true or false, real or imagined, was a joke in itself. The actors mock it throughout: “The truth is something philosophers can’t even find…”

Here it morphs and muddles between the lives of two couples. Michele (Alexander Hanson)  is having an affair with his best friend’s wife Alice (Frances O’Connor). He seems a master in deceit – a manipulative, skilful fabricator of untruths, twisting things cleverly to his advantage. Or at least, that is what he very obviously tries to do. It gradually transpires that Michele is in fact far from in control of the situation. Does he in fact have any idea what is actually going on?

In a memorable line he wheedles that if couples told the truth to each other all of the time, there would be none left and it would pretty much be the end of civilisation. Secretly, this reminds me of a recent episode of Made In Chelsea (no judgement please) where blonde Sam, caught in an untruth, insists to seemingly staunchly honest Lucy that all couples tell white lies to each other and it’s perfectly normal. (Spoiler alert, it turns out a few episodes later that his own girlfriend lied to him, and he is less than pleased about it.) If lying is motivated out of a desire to be kind and spare someone’s feelings, is it fine and morally acceptable? Or should there be truth telling at all times? Michele hilariously promises to his wife Laurence (Tanya Franks) to be a “better liar” – as apparently the best way forward is to construct a more believable web of deceit for everyone to get tangled in. Solid Paul (Robert Portal) seems initially a figure of pity who Michele deliberately loses to at tennis, despite being the better tennis player. Or so he believes. It turns out two can play at that game.

The Truth is beautifully neat and unravels layers of seemingly simple shattering deceit, running 90 minutes straight without interval. All the players wear masks of exceptional poker faces, the set is minimalist – the anonymous hotel room they escape to for a weekend away “looks exactly the same” as the one they have left. The identical hotel rooms, the display of marriage, of best friendship, a successful career or nose-diving from Financial Director into unemployment, are all blank surfaces for the intricacies of untruths. Despite Michele’s appreciation of fibbery, it seems to be on the receiving end of any kind of duplicity still hurts. Outrageous. Unforgivable? Perhaps not when all involved could be mirrors of each other, dancers swapping partners… Whether they will finish in the same places is probably something I should let you find out for yourselves.

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