Southwark Playhouse, London – until 7 April 2018
Old Fools from Tristan Bernays is a perceptive portrayal of the debilitation that Alzheimer’s disease is wreaking upon an ever-growing number of our elderly. A well-crafted script that weaves its arc across the decades of Tom and Viv’s marriage, Bernays cleverly plays with time in a way that echoes Alzheimer’s corrosions of the brains synapses and connections.
A two-hander that lasts little more than an hour, we meet Tom and Viv in their youth, dancing to the 1930s classic (and subsequently covered by everyone from Sinatra to Bublé) ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. A neat twist from Bernays sees the melody, refrained as a motif, poignantly re-appearing as the links between distorted memories and the ever-crumbling present become increasingly pronounced.
Mark Arends and Frances Grey tackle their roles magnificently – both with distinctly different challenges. Arends has to convince us (and he does) that he can morph instantly from carefree young lover to a decaying geriatric, while Grey, who retains her sanity throughout, plays not only the loving Viv but also occasionally their daughter Alice too, capturing the child from her infancy through to adulthood.
Bernays is brutal in his dissected devastation of the condition. In their later years, as Viv is providing Tom’s personal care, the pain etched on her face as he confuses her for his mother is tangible. In a flashback moment, we learn too of Tom’s marital infidelity in years long past. While their marriage may have healed the scars remain, making the loving support from wife to husband even more heartbreakingly acute. The play is as much a study upon love as it is about dementia.
Sharon Burrell directs with a profound delicacy – ably assisted by Lucie Pankhurst’s movement and choreography. Played in the round, if there is but one niggle, it is the (rare) moments when the actors’ work can be briefly hard to see. Peter Small’s lighting work is sharply effective too, transporting us through the years in a heartbeat.
Many in the audience will recognise either a nuance or, perhaps, a reality in the world that Bernays and his company create. And for those who to date have been spared the tragedy of Alzheimer’s affecting a loved one, its menace looms large to us all and to our families.
Old Fools is brilliant devastating theatre, marking Bernays out as an outstanding talent amongst his generation. It deserves a life beyond this stunning premiere – until then, it is an unmissable production at the Southwark Playhouse.