Inspired by and performed in memory of writer and director Luke Adamson’s grandad Ernest, One Last Waltz from Black Coffee Theatre is a poignant and deeply personal portrayal of Alzheimer’s and the impact it can have on people’s lives and relationships.
The play was written with the aim of raising awareness of the disease, particularly in the early stages when symptoms can be easily dismissed as signs of old age or just “getting a bit forgetful”. This is the point at which we meet recently widowed Alice, who’s come into the room looking for something – if only she could remember what. What she does find are her old dancing shoes, which spark long ago memories of waltzing in Blackpool with her husband George.
Alice’s daughter Mandy, who’s becoming more and more concerned about her mum’s memory lapses, suggests the two of them take a trip to the Blackpool hotel her parents stayed in, and go for one last waltz at the Tower. The only problem is that the hotel’s in decline, the Tower’s closed down, and nothing about the town is quite as Alice remembers it. As she becomes increasingly confused and distressed, Mandy – with a bit of help from hotel manager Georgette – begins to understand the difficult road that lies ahead.
Unsurprisingly, the writing shows a real understanding of the nature of Alzheimer’s: that it doesn’t happen all at once but begins with small, barely noticeable lapses that slowly build up to form a bigger picture. As the play opens, Alice – played with touching vulnerability by Amanda Reed – seems quite lucid; the only clue that something might be wrong is that she’s wearing her top inside out and keeps getting distracted from her search for photo albums. Her memories of 1958 are clear as day (including a nice reference to Ken Dodd, the inclusion of which may or may not be a coincidence), and yet she doesn’t remember having breakfast that morning, and as the play goes on she finds herself forgetting more and more – including, most tragically, that her husband passed away two months ago.
At the same time, the play also examines the strain that looking after someone with Alzheimer’s can place on family and friends. As single mum Mandy, Julie Binysh strikes a perfect balance between exasperation, anxiety and tenderness – but the biggest surprise is Julia Faulkner’s deceptively humorous Georgette, who unexpectedly reveals that she understands all too well what Mandy’s going through, and that she sees in Alice an opportunity to atone for a decision that’s haunted her for years.
There’s never any attempt to deny the fact that Alzheimer’s is a desperately cruel way to lose someone, and the play certainly succeeds in its aim to inform audiences about what to look out for, and the difficulties of living with the condition. But although we’re all too aware that this ultimately won’t be a story with a happy ending, the play contains lots of moments of humour, and concludes on a heartwarming note as Alice finally gets to waltz again in Blackpool. And as Luke Adamson writes of his grandad in the show programme (originally written for his funeral, after he passed away in December 2017), “although he faded away somewhat over the last few years, that cannot take away a lifetime of memories that can’t help but bring a smile to your face”. The image of Mandy and Alice embracing on the dance floor, ready to face up to the uncertain future that lies ahead, is exactly the right note on which to end this moving and heartfelt tribute.
One Last Waltz has now concluded its run at Greenwich Theatre, but for news about future productions from Black Coffee Theatre, visit blackcoffeetheatre.co.uk or follow @BlackCoffeeUK.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉