David Auburn’s tight, enjoyable script gets a welcome outing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, with a strong cast and a pacily directed by Polly Findlay. Accents waver, but enjoyment doesn’t – and with the Menier’s exceptional track record, a West End transfer shouldn’t be too much to ask.
In Proof, brilliant mathematician Robert has died after years of battling with mental health problems. As his older daughter, Claire, flies in for the funeral, his younger daughter Catherine starts an unlikely romance with one of Robert’s students, Hal. But who wrote the groundbreaking mathematical proof hidden in Robert’s desk? And has Catherine inherited her father’s genius, madness, or both?
It’s hard not to love David Auburn’s play: whichever way you slice it, it’s brilliant. The script is zippy and bounces pleasantly through a number of themes, with nice snappy dialogue and a driving pace that doesn’t really slacken throughout the entire production. More importantly, it takes the quite dry topic of pure maths and makes it enjoyable – nay, almost sexy. The way the characters describe their work is creative and all-consuming – something an engaged theatre audience can largely relate to, I’m sure.
There’s also a number of very pleasant plot strands, subplots and themes that all tie together nicely – the central conflict is internal to Catherine, her struggles with her potential genius and madness, but there’s also romance, sibling rivalry, parental relationships, and a mystery surrounding the new proof. None of these hog the limelight, and there’s always new angles to pick up on – what it misses out for in simplicity, it makes up for in elegance. Simply put, it’s a gift of a script to work on, and everyone here does it justice.
Mariah Gale in particular impresses as the titular Catherine – a complex and conflicted character, she finds a soft sadness inside the prickly outer shell of the sardonic, snappy dialogue. The accent wavers occasionally, but not quite as much as Emma Cunniffe as her sister Claire, whose part is more one-dimensional, but she still manages to find the right balance between exasperation and concern with her wayward sister. Jamie Parker finds a much more natural Chicago twang, and his geeky yet well-meaning Hal wouldn’t feel out of place in a less trite Big Bang Theory. But the performance of the night may be Matthew Marsh’s Robert, who manages to be avuncular and slightly derailed simultaneously.
Polly Findlay, who’s star seems to be on a continual up, directs the piece fluidly – she allows the dialogue its natural pace, as well as giving the actors a lovely, wide stage with plenty of places to sit, stand and even swing to break up a play that is mostly quite static. Some staging is less settled, with some lines muffled by delivery to the back wall, but it’s mostly forgiveable and helps with the play’s naturalism. Helen Goddard’s stage, apart from the many places to perch, offers a wonderfully believable porch to the decrepit house – instead of something very representational, the house feels fully-formed and inhabitable, giving more weight to the very human, natural script.
The Menier Chocolate Factory have been on a roll recently, with the critically acclaimed Merrily We Roll Along transferring to the West End, and this is certainly of a quality that the West End could always use more of. A splendid production – absolutely worth the visit.