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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Interview: Luke Adamson and Gregory Ashton, Odd Man Out

Odd Man Out is a double bill of stories about people who don’t quite fit in, coming to The Hope Theatre later this month. Performed by The Hope’s Associate Director Luke Adamson and Off West End award nominated Gregory Ashton, these two one-man shows examine male mental health, sexuality, bullying… and elephants.

Rabbitskin is Joe’s story,” says Luke. “He’s a master storyteller like his dad and delights in the smallest of details. Inspired by his heroes, Holden Caulfield, Charles Dickens and the rest, he sets out to tell his story – but growing up as the youngest and smallest of five brothers in Leeds with only his dad to raise them wasn’t easy, and Joe struggles to keep on track.”

“And¬†Welshcake¬†is the story of a Welshman who travels half way across the world and falls in love in the most unlikely of ways,” continues Gregory. “He also happens to be an elephant – make of that what you will. So I guess it‚Äôs a love story but with a twist.”

Luke originally appeared in Rabbitskin in 2013, while Gregory’s been performing Diary of a Welshcake for over ten years. So why put the two together? “I guess they are both¬†really lovely¬†examples of¬†adult¬†storytelling, but more than that they connect with that basic need to understand where we fit in,” says Gregory. “When I was reading¬†Rabbitskin¬†certain lines and moments from¬†Welshcake¬†just popped out at me and I thought, ‘Ooh, yes, these will work¬†together.’

“I¬†think identity and¬†‚Äúfitting in‚Ä̬†are definitely¬†strong there, but also why we define ourselves in whatever group we choose to. The main protagonists in¬†Welshcake¬†are from different cultures and yet neither really feels 100% part of that culture, and so they seek something in the other that is either an escape or simply a way to connect with who they are. I‚Äôm getting on a bit now, and so I have seen many people struggle with identity and the notion of ‘where do I belong’ and it is one of the things that really drives us. But what makes us human is the ability to connect with those outside of¬†our comfort zone¬†and in these very divisive times, that message is always one that is worth exploring.”

“Yeah, as Gregory mentioned there are certain thematic crossovers and even some lines that are shared,” adds Luke. “Together they will present an audience with a moving but hopefully uplifting evening at the theatre.

“There are definitely thematic links in that it is two people telling the story of their lives and finding out where they fit and I guess it touches as well on the broader idea of identity; what makes us who we are? Who we become? And this is universal and will touch different people in different ways.”

Luke came across Dominic Grace’s¬†Rabbitskin¬†quite by accident: “I was called in to audition for it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a few years ago. As soon as I read the script I was hooked. I knew I had to do this play! It is so well written, poetic and touching and laugh out loud funny. And Joe is a dream of a character. I’m so delighted to have an opportunity to share this piece again.”

Gregory, meanwhile, has a personal connection to Diary of a Welshcake.¬†“Well, I grew up in Hong Kong, and I¬†definitely sound more Michael¬†McIntyre than Michael Sheen, so the idea of telling the story of a Welshman who sounds¬†English and ends up teaching in Hong Kong was always a no brainer for me.

“I’ve been performing versions of the show for a long time now, but having someone like Steve¬†Marmion¬†– who’d directed me in another¬†one-man¬†show, Madam Butterfly‚Äôs Child –¬†come in and reshape the piece was a godsend,¬†and really changed how I felt about the connection I could make with an audience, by simply just letting them into the story.¬†I also think I have a much better understanding of where I fit in this world¬†myself¬†and that has changed how I play certain moments, definitely.¬†I’ve played the piece all over the world now, so watching different cultural responses to different parts has been fascinating; it‚Äôs a constant learning curve‚Ķ”

He also enjoys the audience participation element of the show: “My¬†favourite¬†part! I’m a great believer in what I call ‚ÄúSafe‚ÄĚ participation. Nothing mortifying, nothing cruel, but just the odd moment where the audience help the action along. It is lonely up there on your own – I am sure Luke can vouch for that – so feeling the audience is actually helping you create your world is a wonderful sensation. But again, in a safe way. For example, in Madam Butterfly‚Äôs Child the audience had to be 4,000 people at the Albert Hall‚Ķ as a group, no one singled out. Although ‚Äúsafe‚ÄĚ for the audience doesn‚Äôt always translate to ‚ÄúSafe‚ÄĚ for me: in¬†Welshcake¬†there is a pivotal¬†plot moment that involves the creation of‚Ķ but can‚Äôt give anything more away other than to say‚Ķ I‚Äôve only been hurt once.”

As Associate Director at The Hope, Luke has plenty of good things to say about the show’s venue. “The Hope is a family. It’s a place for people to take chances and break new ground on the Off West End scene. I’m so proud of the Equity agreement, the exciting and varied programming and¬†the work we’ve done here over the past few years, and I was delighted that Matthew quite deservedly won Artistic Director of the year at the most recent Offies.”

Gregory’s equally complimentary: “Everyone who works at the Hope is paid. It may not be a huge amount, but everyone is paid and I think that is a huge thing, because everyone feels valued for the work that they do. There is a real team spirit, and under the leadership of Matthew Parker, that sense of commitment to a great and thriving fringe filters down beautifully: I have never been let down when I have been as an audience member, and I cannot wait to return there as a performer.”

So why should we come to see Odd Man Out? “Well, I am going to get humble here and say ‘to see Luke Adamson'”, says Gregory. “He is an exquisite young actor and I can‚Äôt wait to see him bring¬†Rabbitskin¬†to life. And then¬†you can¬†have a drink in the interval, and come and share the story of an elephant abroad.

“I hope that people go away with a sense of¬†how huge a world¬†can be created with just one person and a few props.¬†Fringe is so important and proves that you can have an amazing night out for a lot less money! But more importantly, if one person leaves that theatre and plans to be kinder to the next odd man out that they meet, well I will be satisfied.”

“Haha! Bit of extra pressure there. Thanks for that!” says Luke. “I’m going to say people should come to see two gorgeously moving stories beautifully told. Hopefully people will leave feeling moved but with a smile on their faces. Like they feel richer for the experience. For me that’s when theatre is at its best.”

Book now for Odd Man Out at The Hope Theatre from 26th July-12th August.