FringeReview UK 2018
Director Sharron Burrell who championed this play has utilised The Little Southwark space in the most stripped-back fashion. Movement Director’s Lucie Pankhurst’s way with dissolves, hands held that suddenly become senile snatches in a dance-clinch and visa-versa ensure it’s a dance to the music of time. Peter Small’s lighting is discreetly soft, and composer Christopher Ash with Patrick Ball creates an intimate never boomy soundscape Till April 7th.
All the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order, Eric Morecombe’s gag about mis-playing the Grieg Piano Concerto paraphrases Tristan Bernays’ approach to this seamlessly extraordinary play about life, love, everything and Alzheimer’s.
Once challenged to write something ordinary, far removed from his superb Boudica (premiered at the Globe in September 2017) Bernays delivers a whispering gallery of memories. It’s an aching two-hander light worlds from Boudica’s bright contusions of alrum and strife.
Old Fools premiering at the Southwark Playhouse directed by Sharon Burrell is not about Alzheimer’s either, though it shifts around it. That’s just the trope of the way the play filters through apparently random memories as Mark Arends’ Tom struggles with his slipping identity and we square up with his wife Viv to Tom. It’s a play about and around love, and we’re looking in. Tom’s looking back and you can’t be sure which process is which.
Nothing gets in the way of this two-hander. Burrell who championed this play has utilised The Little Southwark space in the most stripped-back fashion: necessarily to accommodate dissolves and the several characters Frances Gray plays with scene-shifts, but also to allow the dance elements of this essentially musical play on memory all the dancing floor they need. The Way You Look Tonight’ threads and snaps throughout. Movement Director’s Lucie Pankhurst’s way with dissolves, hands held that suddenly become senile snatches in a dance-clinch and visa-versa ensure it’s a dance to the music of time. Peter Small’s lighting is discreetly soft, and composer Christopher Ash with Patrick Ball creates an intimate never boomy soundscape emphasising the essential tenderness, laugher and quiet anguish distilled here.
Despite this Old Fools isn’t entirely a-chronological. We start at the beginning, with only one random memory from Tom’s childhood flashing back at the end when the end’s in sight. and the Alzheimer’s episodes press on more heartbreakingly to the end. Bernays has mussed up the hairline fractures of memory, but it’s a recognizably (just) linear experience, with vaultings-back.
We sashay on the same word through Tom and Viv. In the first few scenes it’s he the singer/dancer Astaire she the superb Rogers-like dancer who shows him moves. It dissolves suddenly into a shudder of age then suddenly it’s their daughter Alice he’s talking to, the professional assessor, a woman he has a brief affair with a woman pleased he’s ‘not a gentleman’, when faced with a crisis on whether to give up playing, his mother briefly. And at one point mistaking Viv for her.
But despite flashes forward and these interruptions the linear progress of tom and Viv (no coincidence, surely the opposite of that other Tom and Viv) is picked through with laughter and sadly forgetting. It’s Viv who forgets, Tom’ s the elephant man who never does. Another cruel irony, necessarily grounded in the random paradox of the disease.
Tom’s a jazz pianist with a burgeoning career taking him rom Barcelona to Rome and all over. He’s also a medical professional early on. The opening scene is almost Shakespearean in its wit. Pianist Tom’s chat-up of Viv’s opening wink as a ‘secret between me and your Lovely Blue Eye’ generates a badinage ‘In fairness it made the first move’ and Viv’s ‘I must have a word with it.. in facst I’ll take it right out of my head’ generating Tom’s comeback, cutting-off of noses to spite faces. ‘Now my nose is getting in on the action… my lips will be gallivanting round with who knows what.’
It can’t all be as blissed-in as that, but the early infatuated scenes with Viv not wanting to go to an interview after their first night (but she’s already been feeding him) is endearing as well as informing us she’s a linguist and ready later to sacrifice her early career for the sake of his recording contract in Rome. Later, when things don’t take off, it’s Tom who has to make thw adjustment and he makes a male mess of it, getting fof with a girl in the nightclub . The provokes the first of two great crises in the paly. But between this is as ever the daughter they thought they might never have, their child Alice Tom in fact bathes, and to whom he explains the most bleached-out facts of life he can, embarrassed at her forwardness. Or being displaced by Russell her boyfriend who drives her to university, and whom she eventually marries after huge turbulence, till they end with children and a stateside job.
Arends make a superb case for Tom’s decency, his lapses, his weaknesses, and with sudden tremors and a thin frame, a terrible premonitory shiver of his lapses into Alzheimer’s induced anomie; his blankness, incomplete sentences, the way he looks and it’s never tonight but fifty years ago. From forward wit to backward-blinded blankness Arends delivers a heart-wrenching hush of a performance. There’s fright in the way he suddenly snatches at Viv in a dementia-grip where half a second earlier they’ve been dancing as young lovers. We’ve seen similar dissolves elsewhere, but none executed so quietly, without lights dimming, sound clicks or that single beat between actions and a vocal shift. Here it’s truly seamless. The text indeed shows a keyword emboldened shifting or triggering the scene from one epoch to the next and back somewhere else. Burrell has chosen the simplest means.
Gray nuances shuffles between Viv, the loving, exasperated furious, tender and terribly resigned wife forced to make a churning decision to save herself. ‘if you love each other you get through it’ as Tomn tells his daughter about her future husband. Sometimes even that isn’t enough I practical terms, but Viv gives everything. She’s also the caring Alzheimer’s therapist, daughter Alice at various ages, the sexy pick-up whom Tom mistakenly calls Viv to show how close she is to Viv’s earlier self in his mind, his own mother, and Viv mistaken as his mother. Gray’s gentle virtuosity is quietly breath-taking: a sinewy dance of love and letting go.
There’s truths to discover here. Bernays enjoins everyone to recall Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition to recognize happiness and recite or think ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ Indeed, to remember love, happiness and life vigorously to combat the oblivion surrounding it.
Supporting Alzheimer Research UK into the bargain, To the Moon and Making Productions must be congratulated for supporting Burrell’s snatching this script from the brief oblivion even Bernays had consigned it after two years’ trying (Burrell also directs To the moon). It’s still a hidden gem of a piece, and you should see this brief hour-long odyssey, either to reflect from its early evening finish or if visiting, as a sweetly sad, perhaps wiser prelude to whatever you choose from the later lights.