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When Alzheimer's meets genius

PUBLISHED: 17:22 25 November 2009 | UPDATED: 17:28 16 August 2010

TORTURED: Derek Dempsey who plays Robert in Proof and Catherine Ellis as his daughter, Catherine..

TORTURED: Derek Dempsey who plays Robert in Proof and Catherine Ellis as his daughter, Catherine..

THE fine line between madness and genius was highlighted last week as the South London Theatre presented David Auburn s fascinating play Proof, writes Mark Campbell.

THE fine line between madness and genius was highlighted last week as the South London Theatre presented David Auburn's fascinating play Proof, writes Mark Campbell.

Robert (Derek Dempsey), a Chicago university lecturer, had in his youth been responsible for some significant insights into applied mathematics.

Now in his early sixties, he is once again on the verge of a major breakthrough - this time in game theory, which has far-ranging implications in economics, philosophy and computer science.

But Robert is not a well man, and when his youngest daughter Catherine (Catherine Ellis) reads his so-called 'proof', she discovers it is the ramblings of a man whose mind is afflicted with what appears to be Alzheimer's.

Following Robert's death, her sister Claire (Laura Yandell) arrives from New York wanting to sell their home.

Further complications ensue when Robert's student Hal (Simon Holland) tries to steal one of his notebooks - containing some very personal information.

Although using it as a leitmotif, this is not a play about mathematics. It could have been about art or literature. It is really an exploration of what it means to be creative, and therefore human.

It's also an extremely concise evocation of the pain of grief and the difficulty of coping with mental illness.

Anna Callender directed a fine cast who brought out every nuance of Auburn's pithy and realistically written dialogue.

Catherine Ellis was particularly engaging as the central character (played in the film version by Gwyneth Paltrow) her love for her father beautifully displayed in subtle flashback scenes. Her discovery of his non-existent 'proof' brought the hairs up on the back of my neck.

Derek Dempsey seemed at first a little nervous as Robert, before settling down to give a sympathetic portrayal of an intelligent man acutely aware of his own 'madness'.

Laura Yandell was strong as the pushy elder sister, obsessed with material things and ignorant of Robert's importance - both in the world of academia, and in Catherine's life.

As Hal, the nerdy maths student who thinks he's not nerdy because he plays in a rock band, Simon Holland was cute and funny. His first fumbling kiss with Catherine on her backyard swing seat was a lovely moment that mixed awkward teenage eroticism with a tenderness that was tinged with melancholy.

The only jarring note in this otherwise assured evening was the director's odd decision to use English accents for an obviously American play. Mark Campbell

* The next production at the South London Theatre in West Norwood will be Dick Whittington from 8-19 December. Tickets: 020 8670 3474.

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