Tom Fool review – money bites in deeply felt family drama | Theatre


What quiet, splintering performances. Starting as a light-hearted portrait of a charming family, this 1978 play devolves into a deeply felt character study of three individuals pulling unhappily in different directions. Written by German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz and translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, this production of Tom Fool is a gentle exploration of the way money wriggles its way into the existing rifts of everyday life, adding pressure until they crack.

At the head of the family is aggravating Otto, a car mechanic played with a remarkable elasticity by Michael Shaeffer, at once utterly proud and deeply unhappy in himself. Putting up with him is Anna Francolini’s unrufflable Martha, longing to find a life beyond housework and orders. Lounging around them is son Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz), desperate to forge his own path.

Michael Shaeffer in Tom Fool at the Orange Tree theatre.
Remarkable elasticity … Michael Shaeffer in Tom Fool at the Orange Tree theatre. Photograph: Richard Davenport

Kroetz beautifully writes jolts of everyday life in this family, as days are derailed by the ordinary things that worry away at us. These fragments start sparse and comedic, but gain weight as we go on, with work and worth becoming inextricably intertwined.

Conversations about money run through every outing and argument, with every single mark accounted for. Special meals out are ruined by fears of being duped by the waiters, and when they watch the royal wedding on television, all Otto can think of is how much it cost. Pride is a key player too, as Ludwig wants to get a job as a bricklayer to start earning his own money, but Otto refuses to let his son become “just” a worker like him; they have to be seen to be going up in the world. When Otto rages and messes up the house, Martha measures the financial damage.

Diyan Zora’s production is soft and tactile, with every nervous glance adding to our understanding of the family’s shifting dynamics. On a naturalistic set designed by Zoë Hurwitz, with brown fold-out sofa and ceiling fan, the realism is interrupted with flashes of projected scene titles. These add another touch of humour to the already sharp comedy of their conversations.

Tom Fool is an astute realisation of the limits of class, of dissatisfaction, and the failure to achieve childhood dreams. But as the characters focus increasingly on the way their jobs define them in this capitalist world, Martha and Ludwig start to break out of the other boundaries they’re restricted by. Equal parts bleak and funny, Zora has staged a tender portrayal of a finely drawn family struggling to weigh up what their love is worth.

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