With the tenth World Alzheimer’s month drawing to a close a timely release from theatre company Off The Middle sets out to raise awareness of the debilitating condition which affects not only the sufferer but also their carer(s). In Other Words by Matthew Seager is also a tender love story as we follow the tale of Arthur and Jane who meet , form a union and are challenged by the gradual decline of the former across a fifty year span.
The play starts at the end, as it were, as Jane clearly worn down by the situation does her best to ready her partner for the day. Arthur by now has reached a severe late stage of the disease which includes impaired mobility, inability to communicate and almost total loss of surroundings; he will require round the clock care. It’s a shocking beginning especially when we are snapped back in time to be shown how their relationship began. The pair’s younger selves meet at a party where he manages to spill red wine on her dress, but a more or less instant bond is formed. He is articulate and carefree; she is coyly responsive; they dance to the music of Frank Sinatra.
Time moves forward from here with each succeeding scene showing their relationship blossoming and becoming permanent. They seem to have a stable loving bond and if they do have the odd minor disagreement then Arthur knows that he only has to play Fly Me To The Moon and invite Jane to dance and all will be well. But the signs are there. Arthur goes to the shops one day but then forgets what it is he came out for, then he can’t find his keys. These are small but telling signs which both of them miss but are indicative of the early, mild stages of the disease. Inevitably the longer lasting middle or moderate stage is reached and Arthur starts to find problems with his speech and orientation and exhibits changes in his personality becoming verbally abusive and overly suspicious of the world at large and Jane in particular. She generally exhibits a stoical calm but in a telling monologue reveals the effects which all of this is having on her too.
The play eventually turns full circle with Arthur in a helpless state and Jane becoming little more than a drudge. The one saving grace for both of them are the silky voices of Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bobby Darin whose music helps to strike a chord in both their memories even though one is irreparable. This highlights the work of charity Playlist For Life who have supported this production. Seager has said: “The charity’s work is based on more than two decades of research showing that ‘personal music’ – the specific tunes attached to someone’s emotions that spark memories – can help those living with dementia by alleviating stress, managing symptoms and strengthening relationships with family members and carers”*. The final moments of the piece show this in action.
The compelling performances of Seager himself and Lianne Harvey are perfectly judged revealing the pressures and heartbreak of managing such a condition. Seager is particularly accomplished at showing the progressive decline in motor functions and speech impairment and conveys a world of pain when he suddenly slumps down in an armchair as the final stages of the disease occur. Harvey is also adept at showing the hurt behind the brave facade as well as determination in the face of adversity. The settings are kept deliberately simple and uncluttered so that we can focus on the human story. Strong use of lighting (William Alder) suggests both the time shifts and the turmoil of Arthur’s brain with a standard lamp put to particularly good use. And Iida Aino’s soundscape is often nightmarish with its well-placed deployment of echo and distortion contrasted against the smooth tones of the music. Paul Brotherston’s direction is measured and assured.
This is both a soundly constructed and moving play in its own right. But it is also highly educational about the symptoms and effects of something which affects 1 in every 14 of the UK population aged 65 years and over and a not insignificant number of younger age groups (2019 research by the Alzheimer’s Society). Apparently by 2040 there will be in the region of 1.5 million sufferers like Arthur and a similar number who will bear the brunt like Jane. Let’s hope that with the pandemic receding more can be done to research ways of mitigating this terrible disease.
*With thanks to Liz Dyer and the blog Theatre Things for the quote; you’ll find a fascinating Q and A with Matthew Seager here)
In Other Words is available via Eventbrite on a pay what you can basis – click here
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