Review: One Last Waltz at Greenwich Theatre

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.


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Review: In Other Words at The Hope Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Alex Fine
Photo credit: Alex Fine

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.

Photo credit: Alex Fine
Photo credit: Alex Fine

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.


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Review: The Memory Show at Drayton Arms Theatre

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.

The Memory Show
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard (www.scarabpictures.co.uk)
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 Memory Show
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard (www.scarabpictures.co.uk)
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.


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Review: Back to Blackbrick at Arts Theatre

I first discovered Patch of Blue when I was asked to review their show Beans on Toast for LondonTheatre1.com. Initially drawn in by the promised combination of lamp light and live folk music, I wasn’t disappointed, and pretty much fell in love with both the play and the company on the spot.

Back to Blackbrick, Patch of Blue’s new production, has just arrived in London’s West End from Edinburgh, and the company kindly invited me along to see it¬†at the Arts Theatre.¬†I went in with worryingly¬†high expectations – Beans on Toast was the first play I awarded five stars to as a reviewer, so they had a lot to live up to – but it soon became clear¬†I had nothing to worry about. I don’t do star ratings here, as you know, but if I did it’s safe to say we’d be looking at another five…

Based on a novel by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Back to Blackbrick is the story of Cosmo, whose beloved grandad Kevin has Alzheimer’s, and is gradually slipping away from¬†everything and everyone he loves. Still grieving for his brother Brian, who died on his tenth birthday in a tragic accident, and desperate not to lose¬†Grandad too, Cosmo makes him¬†a promise – to go to Blackbrick Abbey… only to find a sixteen-year-old Kevin¬†waiting, and an opportunity to change the events that have brought¬†the family to this point.

Back to Blackbrick

Though the two stories are very different, Back to Blackbrick features many of the same qualities that so appealed to me in Beans on Toast. Both are gently humorous and whimsical, but with the emotional power to reduce you to tears. Both have a cosy fireside storytime feel, and, most significantly, they share a common theme –¬†namely¬†the power of memory, and¬†the fact that even if you’ve lost someone, they’re never really gone as long as the¬†memory of them remains.

I think what I love most about Patch of Blue’s work is that they have a way of drawing the audience in, sharing lives and memories until the characters begin to feel like friends you’ve known for years. Whether it’s Cosmo and Kevin, or Scott and Jen from Beans on Toast, you can’t help but leave the theatre feeling like you’re taking a little piece of them with you (which is also literally true, in a way – but I’ll say no more about that, for fear of spoilers).

Back to Blackbrick

Though various cast members lend their voices,¬†Cosmo is predominantly played by Alex Brain, with the¬†perfect combination of bolshy teenager and terrified, vulnerable child. Grahame Edwards is wonderful as poor, confused Grandad, shuffling around the stage in his pyjamas looking lost and bewildered, while Lloyd Bagley provides a¬†counterpoint as the young Kevin, full of energy and optimism as he faces¬†a future¬†full of exciting opportunities. The first-rate¬†cast is completed by Alexandra Simonet and Elizabeth Grace-Williams, who play the two women in Kevin’s life, both past and present.

But actually, to say the cast is complete isn’t quite true, because they’re¬†joined¬†by¬†London folk band Wovoka Gentle, without whom Back to Blackbrick would be an entirely different show. Their gorgeous folk music is a perfect accompaniment to the nostalgic wistfulness of the story, and I’ll definitely be checking them out very soon in their own right.

Back to Blackbrick¬†takes¬†a family-friendly story with an important message (the original novel aimed to educate young adults on the effects of Alzheimer’s), and adapts it beautifully. Full of humour and Irish charm, the play¬†nonetheless packs quite an emotional punch; the cast aren’t the only ones¬†in tears by the time the story reaches its moving conclusion.

I’m so looking forward¬†to seeing what this exciting emerging¬†company do next – based on what I’ve seen so far, it’ll be amazing.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures


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