David Auburn Hope Mill Theatre Company
Hope Mill, Manchester 27 November 2018 to 02 December 2018
First seen on Broadway in 2000, Proof caused something of a stir, winning a Pulitzer, a Tony and a Drama Desk for Best Play. There have been a couple of London productions over the intervening years, including one featuring Gwyneth Paltrow (who also reprised it on screen) but over here it has never been as highly rated as it was over there.
As far as I know, only Oldham Coliseum has done the play before in this region, back in 2005; and it’s also the first home-produced straight play from a house that has built its reputation on musicals. A good choice?
At first glance the maths-averse might be inclined to give it a wide berth, as it’s ostensibly about a genius mathematician and advanced maths … so advanced that those, like me, who still have nightmares about the 11-Plus algebra paper, ought to be completely out of their depth.
But don’t panic, this was, after all, a Broadway success, and sure enough it is much less about obscure formulae and much more about family relationships...
On the back porch of a house near Chicago University, 25-year-old fragile Catherine (Lucy Jane Dixon), is mourning the death of her celebrated mathematician father, Robert (David Keller). She gave up her academic career to nurse him in his later years as he became more and more mentally unstable.
Catherine’s elder sister Claire (Angela Costello) arrives from New York for the funeral, fearing Catherine may have inherited her father’s mental health problems, while gawky Hal (Samuel Holland), a former student of Robert, is searching through Robert’s notebooks to see whether the great man discovered anything of importance during his later years, and at the same time makes a play for Catherine.
Like many a celebrated, commercially-successful play of its ilk, it clearly made it to prominence because it is somewhat tricksy and contrived – ghosts, flashbacks, clever maths jokes – and doesn’t push the boundaries, overall cunningly devised to keep an audience neatly hooked.
Whether you buy into it or not is very largely down to cast and director to convince while it plays out in front of you for two-and-a-quarter hours.
Director Joseph Houston, co-director/founder at Hope Mill, is here making his directorial debut and he makes an excellent fist of everything.
He’s got an attractive, all-wood-planks set of raised platform and house front, with scattered autumn leaves (designer Frankie Gerrard), to play with; some sound and lighting effects to enhance things (Joseph Thomas/Dan Pyke) and has encouraged four highly convincing performances from his very likeable cast. Dixon has the most to do by far, and she holds the whole together with considerable aplomb.
It’s just the sort of thing we might have seen at the late lamented Library Theatre, with production values very much on that level, too. And all this without a public subsidy...