There is a certain delicious irony in seeing a play about old-age and Alzheimer’s in the midst of a midweek matinee audience at Richmond Theatre. In the pub beforehand, a middle-aged woman said she’d never seen so many white-haired ladies gathered in one room before, and indeed with the coaches lined up outside there was an element of a ‘Shady Pines‘ outing to the whole event.  About an hour into the play, what sounded like a death rattle came from the back of the stalls and nobody dared turn round to see if someone had expired.

Whether Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm becomes the new big thing when it opens at Wyndhams in October depends on how far the critics are willing to adopt an emperor’s clothes position. Because this is not a patch on The Father – even though the themes are similar.  The setting of a Chekovian oversized country house in unspecified rural France, the backwards and forwards timeslips of the plot, even the awareness of who is living and who dead among the characters on stage – make it much harder to follow and to fathom, especially for an audience already worrying about memory loss and death.

When his character – a retired novelist –  is animated, Jonathan Pryce may do a lot of eyebrow acting but it’s his body language and absolute stillness when he stands in the light of the kitchen window that compels you to share his pain and anger at the loss of a lifelong companion.  The lifelong companion, Madeleine, is an impeccable Eileen Atkins, her vigour and half smiling sarcasm an enriching contrast to his silences and inertia.

The subtle detail in her acting is either a craft honed over half a century, or it’s something she does instinctively and naturalistically but to watch her peel a mushroom, and to intuit heinous intent from nothing she says or does, but from a flicker of an idea that passes across her face – is a treat, and to make that understandable in an eight hundred seat theatre is the rarest of gifts.

If you didn’t know better, you might think Atkins studied at RADA in the Dench/Smith/Plowright era, whereas in fact she danced in her knickers in East End working mens’ clubs as ‘Baby Eileen’ before television, and before the war when popular entertainment was rather different.  Knowing this should just make you admire her even more.

Because the events and the relationships of the characters slip so easily through your mental grasp, you keep thinking there will be a coup de théâtre in which all is resolved and you ‘get’ what Zeller is on about.  But it doesn’t come.  I left still feeling unsure when Madeleine had died, or if she hadn’t and she had fulfilled her promise that Andre would never be left alone by dispatching him before it came to that.   The subplot of whether their daughters plan to sell the house and move Andre to a nursing home is both superfluous and superficial, despite a good performance by Amanda Drew as the more sympathetic sister, and an interesting character played by Lucy Cohu who may or may not have been Andre’s lover.

The script is irritating in that it adheres to a French location and is palpably a translation – even by Christopher Hampton – which feels occasionally stodgy.  Much hinges on why Andre can’t be left alone in the house because it’s necessary to drive to fetch groceries, so maybe it wouldn’t work in Britain where every supermarket has online deliveries.  How backward is France, then.

It is only playing the politer regional theatres – Bath, Richmond, Cambridge – before its West End opening, but even those generous audiences detect a disjunct between the superlative acting and the uneven script.

On verra.