Maths is not funny. There is nothing humorous about a simultaneous equation or a cumulative frequency diagram. Long division does not make you smile. Yet David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof is an often-comic drama with mathematics at its very centre. Last staged in London by the Donmar in 2002, with Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead role, the play returned to London at the Arts last night. Matthew Amer was there to see if it all added up to a good show.
This new production of Proof does not boast the star billing of the Donmar. Instead newcomer Sally Oliver, making her professional London debut, plays Catherine, a 25-year-old who gave up her promising studies to care for her father, Robert, a mathematical genius who suffered from mental illness before his death. She is hard, protected and guarded, not letting others into her world. Why? Resentment and the fear that she has more in common with her father than his mathematical ability.
Into her world comes Hal (Neal Foster) one of Robert’s former students who wants to work his way through notebooks filled with Robert’s scribblings in the hope that among them will be more mathematical greatness.
Robert – played as cheery and laid back by Terence Booth, though also tormented by his loss of mental fortitude – is the least seen character but is present in all proceedings. Oliver’s Catherine, whose defences are breached as the evening progresses, is still trying to protect him, and protect herself from becoming him. Foster’s Hal – often endearingly poking fun at the stereotyped maths geeks, among whose number he includes himself – idolises him. And second daughter Claire (Aislinn Sands) tries to allay the guilt of not being there for him by over-protecting and controlling her sister.
The wonder of Proof is that it takes domestic drama, a love story and a thriller, rolls them all together, adds a good helping of comedy, and plays it all out on the veranda of a weather-beaten, white-picket-fence Chicago homestead. Auburn’s script is packed with unforced humour surrounding maths, stereotypes and control, but then hits you with moments where the bottom falls out of characters’ worlds. But in a play centred on maths, the key moment comes when proof can’t be found and trust must be enough.
Proof plays at the Arts until 17 March.