Theatre Re’s latest work, The Nature of Forgetting, premiered this week at Shoreditch Town Hall, where it was greeted by sell-out audiences and standing ovations. The three-night run was far too brief – but something tells me we haven’t seen the last of this beautiful and moving show.
Inspired by recent neurobiological research and interviews with people living with dementia, The Nature of Forgetting attempts to piece together their experience through the story of Tom, who’s 55 today. As he dresses for his birthday party, each item of clothing in his wardrobe brings back confused fragments of memory from his earlier life, and the people who played a part in it.
Though there’s a clear story behind the memories – school days, courtship, marriage, career – what makes this show so powerful is not the events themselves, but the emotions at the heart of them. So while the details of each memory may be a little hazy, we do get to experience the joy of a bike ride, the stress and anxiety of a wedding day, the heartbreaking sense of loss evoked by an empty chair… There’s humour too, in Tom’s overbearing mother and class clown antics – and through it all, the recurring sensation of panic that comes with trying to pin down these elusive memories as they slip away. And importantly, it’s also not just Tom’s story but also that of the people who love him, reminding us that dementia doesn’t only affect the person who suffers from it.
At just over an hour, the show is essentially one single scene, which fades and reassembles as Tom is transported into his memories. The cast (Guillaume Pigé, Louise Wilcox, Eyglo Thorgeirsdottir and Matthew Austin) are in motion almost the entire time, together forming a well-oiled machine that ensures every prop – primarily the wooden school desks that form the show’s central motif – is in position and every performer always in exactly the right place. The result is a whirl of movement that appears entirely fluid and effortless.
Just as important as the movement is the music, composed and performed by Alex Judd, accompanied by percussionist Keiran Pearson. Written in the rehearsal room as the show was taking shape, the score exquisitely mirrors the emotions on stage, and builds to a stirring climax for the final scene. There are some particularly powerful moments when Tom is struggling with his loss of memory and the soundtrack seems to bend and twist along with his ability to piece together his recollections.
It’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t been there to really experience what it must be like to lose their grip on memory, but this thoroughly researched and beautifully presented show offers us a glimpse into that world. It’s at times a scary picture – but The Nature of Forgetting reminds us that just because those events and emotions may be harder to recall, they’re not gone forever and will live on in Tom, however deeply buried they may be. It’s an uplifting note on which to end this unforgettable show.
For more information about Theatre Re and to find out about future performances, visit retheatre.com.
And you can read about the show in my interview with director Guillaume Pigé.