Southwark Playhouse, London – until 7 April 2018
Dementia as a topic for plays has escalated in recent years and with good reason. As the core of one’s identity, the loss of one’s memory is potentially devastating – even more so for one’s loved ones. Plays such as Florian Zeller’s The Father and Barney Norris’ Visitors have explored how dementia affects the relationships with one’s parents, while Matthew Seigar’s In Other Words has focused (among other things) on music as an aid to cognitive restoration. Closer to home, Old Fools – which is written by Tristan Bernays and directed by Sharon Burrell – can be likened to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife in that a woman has to deal with her partner’s ‘dislocation in time’.
Tom (Mark Arends) and Viv (Frances Grey) are very different people in terms of temperament and vocation, but a spark exists between them nevertheless. As a musician, Tom lives in the moment and acts on impulse. Viv, meanwhile, is a translator in commerce, so carefulness in her thinking and actions are second nature.
But rather than follow the couple’s story in a linear fashion, the play folds time so that words and actions in any given scene are repeated in a completely different context elsewhere. In doing so, we see the honeymoon period of their marriage juxtaposed with the trying times. In this respect, equal praise should be given to Bernays’ writing and Burrell’s direction, conveying effortlessly the ebb-and-flow of emotions over time.
However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Like any marriage, Viv and Tom find that their relationship is strained over time, with financial struggles and time apart biting down hard. As stressful as caring for a partner with dementia is, the everyday troubles that Viv and Tom face are all too real and relatable – especially where money, ‘stalled careers’ and lack of communication are concerned. Where Viv finds the strength to care for Tom is eye-opening – in some ways a straightforward change of pace after their rocky patch, but ultimately creating greater heartache as the person that ‘was’ Tom regresses…
Suffice to say, Grey and Arends deliver sterling performances, rooting the lives of Tom and Viv in very relatable emotions and circumstances.