A poetic meditation on the nature of age and memory, strong on charm and scientific research if weak on narrative and a personal perspective.
Psychiatrists of a certain bent insist there are no such things as accidents. If this is the case then surely the types of show I have opted to review – inasmuch as choice is permitted here at FringeReview Towers – must reflect something about my own character or concerns. The comedies and showbiz biographies are easy to understand, my being a fan of light entertainment, but the fact there are so many plays that take memory as their central theme may indicate something darker, if not deeper. Certainly, I pride myself on having a fairly strong memory (though don’t ask me for names, it’s a curious blind spot) and the notion of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia does leave me with a sense of dread.
As our life expectancies grow increasingly Methuselan, so it seems our fears of senility have escalated. The retention of an active mind is seen as at least as important as that of a functioning body, thus Terry Pratchett’s very public wish to undergo voluntary euthanasia once his diagnosed Alzheimer’s develops to a particular point. Spare Tyre’s co-production, in association with the Wellcome Trust, therefore is a timely piece of work, while the decision to cast actors who are all over the age of 60 is both brave and unavoidable. As a result, however, this piece is almost impossible to gauge by regular standards.
A spartan set plays host to a Dali-esque landscape, composed mainly of poles from which props intermittently hang, as well as a screen onto which various mantra-like sentences are projected throughout the 45 minutes of the show. The time is significant being the length of the 1947 IQ test applied to almost every Scottish school child born in 1936 as part of the Scottish Mental Survey. The 1997 discovery of the survey data led to Professors Ian Deary and Lawrence Whalley gathering together as many surviving participants of that test – 1091 in all – and getting them to resit it, in order to study the effects of ageing on the brain. Spare Tyre’s investigation of this process and its results has resulted in a play that strays from, and occasionally back to, the test itself in order to provide potted biographies of philanthropists Andrew Carnegie and Sir Henry Wellcome, tales of the rediscovery of the original data, details of some of the results and fragments of interview with the study’s subjects.
As perhaps befitting a piece about the mind, the structure is unwieldy, making and celebrating unexpected connections, like occasionally sparking synapses. There are repetitions and cliché, inelegant pauses and mixed-up lines. In any other show these would be fatal errors. Here, they are part of the character of the play. All former expectations have to be disregarded when we take what seems like an age to transform one of the actors, with a simple hat and beard, into Andrew Carnegie: the time taken here may be a symptom of age, or it may be a means by which the audience’s own “mental metabolism” is being slowed to a more meditative rate. Likewise, when one of the actors comes out playing a young ingénue, it’s hard to tell whether the laughter is with or at the incongruous spectacle. Is this a shared joke, or are we being patronising, as we might on seeing a terrier dressed as a Scots piper?
Surprisingly for a company that prides itself on having worked with older people for more than 15 years, the play focuses more on the scientists behind the original test and its restaging than the participants. While they are referred to, they seem to be little more than spectators in their own story, while events such as Deary and Whalley’s discovery of the 1947 test data is equated with the uncovering of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Given the sponsorship of the Wellcome Trust, one does wonder whether Spare Tyre haven’t “gone native” with this production.
This is not a dynamic piece, in the sense that there are sudden shifts of pace. Indeed, it all seems much of a one-ness, with an emphasis more on the cerebral than the physical – then again, this is the mind we’re talking about. That said, Pete Lawson’s script does contain moments of sly humour, the cast each have their moments to shine, the questions the play raises are pertinent – even if the answers are inconclusive (like ageing itself, the study of cognitive ageing, it seems, takes time) – and the play’s conclusion, the oft repeated phrase “I’m still here” strikes a genuine chord with its audience, many of whom appear old enough to have taken the test themselves. This is a genuine oddity within the festival, a fact that has its own value irrespective of traditional theatrical values, and I recommend it to those willing to adopt new perspectives. You won’t need your cardie.