The Memory Show began life in 2008 as a thesis project for Sara Cooper and Zach Redler, both of whom had their own memories of seeing a loved one go through Alzheimer’s. And that may well be why watching this heartbreaking musical feels uncomfortably like intruding on a very private and intimate moment, between a mother diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and her daughter who reluctantly returns home to care for her. As their already tense relationship is put under ever greater strain, we’re presented with an unflinchingly honest view of the emotional and practical repercussions of caring for someone with this devastating condition, along with an exploration of the unpredictable nature of memory itself.
And so there’s a song about cleaning the toilet, and another listing all the things that need to be done before the mother passes away. The daughter, forced to be endlessly patient with a parent who’s more like a child, doesn’t hold back about her complicated mix of emotions; she loves her mother, and despises her at the same time for all she’s had to give up. She wants it all to be over, but wishes that it could be possible afterwards to call her mother for a chat. Often speaking directly out to the audience as her only other human contact in an increasingly claustrophobic situation, she explains about difficulties with doctors, and confesses her fears about whether she’s doing the right thing.
But as hard as this blunt honesty is to watch, there are also some lovely, tender moments – as they sit together on the sofa looking at potential matches on a dating website, they could be any mother and daughter, rather than a patient and her carer. And the final scene is bittersweet, because we know that whether or not the two can mend their relationship, it’s still going to be too late.
The relationship between Ruth Redman and Carolyn Maitland as the nameless mother and daughter is utterly convincing – the ups and downs, the bickering, the reminiscing – and both show flashes of the same feistiness. As they reflect on their difficult history together, one topic keeps recurring: Ira, late husband and father, who seems to be remembered very differently by the two women. One of them is remembering him wrong… but not necessarily the one we might expect – and the continued references to a ‘secret’ hold us in suspense until the truth is finally revealed.
The simply staged production, directed by Alex Howarth, finds the characters and audience confined within the pair’s living room, with a string of lights above their heads that illuminate during the mother’s brief, and increasingly rare, moments of clarity. Behind them, meanwhile, a white sheet provides a backdrop for flickering images from home movies, a haunting reminder of the life and happiness that’s slowly fading away.
The Memory Show paints a brutal picture of the horror that is Alzheimer’s, but it also leaves a powerful impression for those without direct experience of the disease. It’s a story of two people who learn how to love each other only when it’s too late, and encourages us to reflect on our own relationships, and the power of memory to make or break them. A heartbreaking show to watch, true, but still one that should be seen.