Brighton Fringe 2018
Dylan Cole plays Austin Michaels, an ex-champion Scrabble player, a man struggling to reconcile a past he’s rapidly forgetting.
On stage was a small table with some props on and a large giant magnetic scrabble board with some tiles attached to it, which forms the crux of the three-act structure.
After a long American-style introduction to a scrabble tournament, we meet the star of the show – Austin, a geeky ex-world champion scrabble player. We first meet him as he reads his shopping list into a dictaphone, explaining to us that he has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s – or, as his wife Daisy puts it, his “brains’ gone scabby.”
As he tells us about his life – explaining how his granny got him playing Scrabble in the first place -we begin to notice that he sometimes repeats himself, and there are pauses, looking confused, as he forgets what he’s talking about.
Austin’s nerdy jokes fall flat as he tries desperately to be funny, and much like Ricky Gervais’ character David Brent, he is simultaneously annoying and pitiful. Trapped in an obsession of Scrabble he endlessly looks for wordplays and anagrams in the everyday world, seeing the value of words purely as a reductive score “forget definitions, it’s never about the definition” showing us how sharp he is (or once was) while revealing his lack of awareness of the wider world.
Throughout each chapter of his life Austin seeks meaning in a motivational poster his granny brought him, constantly rearranging the phrase “Hang on in there, Baby” on the giant scrabble board to create new significant phrases to help him cope with life’s difficulties. Similarly the music of Nat King Cole is interwoven throughout as aide de memoirs with the inevitable “Unforgettable” playing a key role.
The show grows increasingly darker and serious as he talks about his medications and then launches into the story of how he met his wife. Here the storytelling becomes mesmerising, as Cole takes on the role of an imagined film noir detective – and our hearts warm to him as we hear how the love story progressed. But as the disease begins to increasingly take hold of him, the story’s narrative and memories start to break down. The detective can’t remember quite what happened, and the phrase “I remember it like it was yesterday” has a hollow ring, yet loaded with new connotations. Austin’s sense of timing becomes confused, we don’t know what is now and what is in the past. His thoughts begin looping even faster, and he starts to talk about his childhood with his granny again – but has begun to forget his wife as he regresses. Austin reveals that he knows 200,000 winnable words in Scrabble, but towards the end words literally fail him.
We won’t spoil the moment which really defined the tragedy and cruelty of the illness, but suffice to say that as the audience spilled out of the hot theatre, blinking in the daylight, every one was in tears, and perhaps making a resolve to cherish what we have a little more than we do – as one day it might all be gone.
Everything about this show, from the fully realised characterisation, the writing and script structure, and the simple yet effective stage dressing were spot on. Cole performed this at Edinburgh last year, but has since highly polished this wonderful gem into something special that’s well worth embracing.