PROOF

Wed 23rd – Sat 26th May 2012

reviews

Ben Llewelyn

at 23:56 on 23rd May 2012

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Heartless cynic that I am, it's very rare that I see a production that genuinely gives me goosebumps. I'm also very wary of giving five star reviews. I should also confess that I really, really don't like maths. At all. But in spite of that fact, I'm thrilled to say that 'Proof' managed to achieve all of these things.

I arrived at the O'Reilly to be greeted by a set which was, frankly, incredible. I had been eagerly informed by the production team that it featured 'real grass!' - and I was not disappointed. It had been perfectly thought-through and assembled, and along with the music that accompanied the entrance of the audience which, like all of the choices of music featured in the play, was extremely well-chosen, it established a high level of expectation which was certainly matched by the performance itself.

Millie Chapman, who plays Catherine, the show's heroine - if the term can be applied, is superb. I should commend her stamina above anything - she is on stage for nigh-on the whole show, and yet maintains such a high level of performance that I could scarcely fault it. Like a few of the other accents in the piece, hers does falter slightly in places, but this is not particularly noticeable except to accent fascists like myself. Alice Evans and Dugald Young, Catherine's sister Claire and love interest Hal respectively, are equally excellent. I was unsure about Young's character at the start of the play, but I was won over pretty swiftly by his comic timing and strong character acting - I got so involved in the interactions between his character and Chapman's that when they finally enjoyed their first kiss, I wanted to whoop out loud like in an episode of Friends. The interaction, too, between the two sisters is strong - Evans' straight-laced elder sister the perfect counterpart to Chapman's 25-year old stroppy teenager.

I ought to note also that the production team have done a really superb job with the show: I have already mentioned the wonderful set, but the choices of lighting and sound are perfect, with the effects used to mark the descent into madness the best examples of this. The attention to detail is meticulous - I'm the biggest stickler for an incorrectly-coloured liquid in a whisky bottle or a faked slurp from a coffee cup, but everything here was absolutely spot-on, down to the carefully folded tea towels and breakfast bagels. My only very slight concerns, and I've got to list them at risk of otherwise appearing that I've been paid by the director, were that the cast tended to move to leave the stage before the lights had completely gone down, a pet hate of mine and one which is easily solved; and that at one point one of the team moving the set was still on stage when the lights came up. These will, I'm sure, be easily ironed out by subsequent performances. At the play's conclusion, also, when Catherine sits down to talk Hal through the proof which gives the play its title, and which he has been apparently eagerly reading for two days, for her to open with 'Well, basically it's about prime numbers" seemed laughably facile - though presumably this is a scriptual concern rather than a directorial one.

I have left discussion of the last of the four cast members until this point for one reason: Jared Fortune as Catherine's father Robert absolutely sparkles - his performance was quite possibly the finest I have seen in my three years of watching student drama in Oxford. He was truly excellent - his movement and diction were perfect for the role, he switched from calm affection to extremes of anger and sadness beautifully, and his excitement in the second act at finally being able to work again was palpable, which made its transition into sobbing realisation of madness - sobbing, in fact, for both him and myself - incredibly poignant, and the finest example of the excellent interplay between Fortune and Chapman.

In all honesty, I really didn't think I'd enjoy a play about maths, but director Zu Quirke made me completely reconsider. Proof is touching, funny, and very well executed indeed. If you're not busy doing finals, then you've got no excuse not to go and see it - you really won't regret it.

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May Anderson

at 01:53 on 24th May 2012

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There is something a little canny about putting a play on about genius in Oxford. The chances are most audience members will know one, or heard of one, or seen a solitary one slink across the quad. They may even be one, and know, as David Auburn’s 'Proof' shows that being that smarter than everyone you know is not as great as it first sounds, in fact, for some, it is pretty cripplingly awful. ‘Proof’ tackles the overlap between the mania of genius and the genius one might find in mania, and weaves an intricate portrait of the flourishing and decline of two minds who function outside the realm of normative cognition. The narrative centers on a daughter struggling to live in the shadow of her father’s virtuosic mathematical ability – a gift that may or may not have been passed down to her – as her sister, Clare, and her father’s ex-student Hal work to drag her out of a period of despondency.

Millie Chapman’s portrayal of Cathy is an understated and affecting study of emotional instability. Chapman manages to be sharp, funny, steely and vulnerable all in the same breath – there are more than a few lovely moments where she lets a line that proves she is twice as shrewd as everyone else in the room slip almost unnoticed beneath the babble of her interlocutors inanities. The scenes which follow the complexities of her relationship with her father – played by the eminently watchable Jared Fortune – are where the play gets most interesting. Raising questions about biological inheritance, familial duty and emotional dependency these two performers are adept at drawing us into their narrow, fragile and beautiful – where ‘proofs are like music’ – mathematical worlds.

The set is undeniably gorgeous. Dragging yourself out of the sunshine to sit in the semi-darkness of the Keble O’Reiley is justified just for the loveliness of the little porch and garden space, fallen into a state of genteel disrepair, that the set team has created. The soundscape that accompanies the scene transitions is a similar conceptual triumph with a knack of sustaining an emotional ambience that some of the scenes in last night’s performances slightly lacked.

One of the more startling undercurrents of the play is the emphasis it puts on the absence of any cultural images of female genius and the central doubt of the play hinges on this non-existence. One of the more poignant moments in the play is when Cathy recites a letter written to congratulate Sophie Germain, an eighteenth-century French mathematician whose work was instrumental in unlocking Fermat's last theorem yet was not able to pursue a career in the sciences because of her gender. Hal is consistently joking about the ‘guys’ in the maths department, and the scenes in which he is decidedly un-macho in posturing about his geeky rock band and his sexual ‘experimentation’ are endearing and amusing yet remind us that the scientific world is still mainly a man’s world.

This production is almost faultless and delivered with an ease that sometimes lets the dramatic tension run a little slack – but that is less than minor slip in a play that is elsewhere so acutely accomplished.

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