Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
‘A play about dementia set to the music of Frank Sinatra.’
On paper, it doesn’t sound like the most appealing proposition, does it? But this clever piece, written by Matthew Seager, is an affecting study of the ways in which dementia, that most insidious of illnesses, can gradually overtake someone’s life. It also examines the pressures placed upon partners, who increasingly find themselves becoming carers. I have some personal experience here, because the last ten years of my mother’s life were affected by Alzheimer’s – and watching the way Arthur (Seager) and Jane (Angela Hardie)’s close and loving relationship is gradually destroyed by the inexorable onset of dementia is, of course, tragic and compelling.
We first encounter the couple at their clumsy introduction in a bar, back when they were young and carefree – and we watch their first tentative dance to the titular Sinatra song, the one that is destined to become a touchstone in their lives – but, almost immediately, we slip forward to their harrowing present as Arthur deteriorates before our eyes, transforming into a mute, quivering figure in a chair, the unpalatable reality signalled by a flickering standard lamp and ominous, echoing sound effects. The performances from the two leads are exemplary, and the simple but effective staging works well, snapping me backwards and forwards in time without ever confusing me. It’s poignant to see present day Arthur suddenly transform to his younger, more vital self.
If there’s anything missing from the story, it’s a look into the the characters’ external lives. We learn very little about what they do outside of their relationship. Where, for instance, do they work? What are their interests (other than the music of Mr Sinatra)?And there’s only one brief scene that has a passing reference to any friends they might have. Perhaps Seager wants to concentrate all his attention on the couple’s mutual dependency, but it’s harder to mourn what’s been lost when we haven’t been shown a full picture of it. I’m also a little unsure of how old Arthur is supposed to be when he first begins to exhibit signs of the illness.
But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the story or the fact that it tackles a very important subject with sensitivity and understanding. Seager first became interested in the idea when he worked alongside people with dementia and noticed how regular exposure to music served to calm their mounting terrors. I also know from personal experience that people in the grip of dementia can be perfectly lucid about events that happened decades earlier, but have no memory of what happened minutes ago – a condition that is expertly conveyed here. I cry quite a lot during this performance as it evokes personal memories.
After this brief showing at the Traverse, In Other Words moves on to The Tron Theatre in Glasgow. See it if you can and be prepared to weep.