Off the Middle’s Matthew Seager was inspired to write his debut play, In Other Words, by 10 weeks facilitating sensory stimulation workshops in a dementia care home during his last year of uni. A residency with the Lyric Hammersmith’s Emerging Artists Programme followed, and now In Other Words finds its way to the Hope Theatre, directed by Paul Brotherston.
The story follows Arthur and Jane throughout 50 years of their relationship, charting the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s disease on their marriage and life together. It’s an undoubtedly harrowing play to watch – don’t expect to leave without shedding a tear or several – but also contains a glimmer of hope. Because this is also a story about music and its incredible ability to anchor people in reality, even when little else remains of the person they once were.
Much of the play’s impact is felt in the performances of Matthew Seager and Celeste Dodwell, who are both devastatingly good in their roles as Arthur and Jane. In good times and bad, their relationship is 100% believable – as is Seager’s careful portrayal of dementia as Arthur gradually slips away, and Dodwell’s of Jane’s gut-wrenching grief. The whole play is unflinchingly, brutally honest about the experience of living with Alzheimer’s – not just for Arthur, but for Jane too, who stays at her husband’s side as he descends into a spiral of denial, confusion and rage, but not without privately confessing feelings of resentment, anger, and guilt at having failed to spot the signs and do something sooner.
Apart from one passing reference to middle age, it’s not totally clear how old the couple are meant to be or how quickly the disease is progressing, the only real hint of context in the Sinatra-led soundtrack. Even so, the two actors are clearly younger than their characters – a harsh reminder that dementia sufferers aren’t just “old people”, but people who were once young and full of life: dancing, falling in love, laughing, arguing, singing badly – just like the rest of us. The couple tell us their story together, looking back with tenderness on their happy times as well as the harder years, the love between them as alive as it was in the beginning. And through it all, one song – Fly Me To The Moon – has the power to reach out and heal any wounds, however deep they may be.
In a space too small for set changes (or indeed much of a set at all), lighting and sound design from Will Alder and Iida Aino combine to situate the action: in a busy pub with music playing in the background; in a living room so silent and full of pain that a ticking clock becomes the only sound; in the doctor’s office as Arthur struggles to remember three simple words… Each detail is spot on and beautifully observed, as are the scenes in which Arthur’s thoughts are drowned out by a wave of white noise and blue light that fills the space in moments when it all gets too much.
In Other Words makes no excuses and covers up none of the harsh details of living with dementia. But it also paints a picture of a love that endures – and will continue to endure – even beyond the cruellest of circumstances. Funny and heartbreaking, charming and brutal, this is a powerful debut that’s not to be missed… but remember to take tissues.
In Other Words is at The Hope Theatre until 18th March.