You know at the end of Eastenders when they say “if you are affected by any of the subjects in tonight’s episode…”
Well that, about Alzheimer’s, for people who have just seen Off The Middle’s finely observed In Other Words at the Hope Theatre in Islington! Phew! What A show!
“In Other Words” are taken from the lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly me to the Moon”. It is Arthur and Jane’s song. It was playing when they first met and fell in love. It plays when they dance, it plays when fight and make up. It also plays when it is the only thing that Arthur will respond to.
They meet when Arthur accidentally knocks Jane’s red wine out of her hand and down her front. They fall in love and start a long life together. Then, one day, Jane asks Arthur to get some milk and stamps and his five minute chore inexplicably takes half an hour.
Welcome to the rest of their life!
Writer, Matthew Seager, who also plays Arthur, has created an insightful piece of theatre about the effects of dementia on relationships: extraordinarily well written (and also sensitively delivered by its director, Paul Brotherston) it is clear that, as a playwright, Seager knows his subject and, as an actor, knows his art.
At first Arthur finds it hard to recognise that there is a problem let alone deal with it. Then come the lies, the doubt, the false hope, but always the deterioration.The problem with Alzheimer’s is that you don’t recover from it. Sometimes you are better than it, other days your best just isn’t good enough. Seager endows Arthur with a loveable bravado when the “sun is shining” but with a flicker, a cloud crosses his face and the bravado gives way to a heart-breaking fragility, full of confusion and doubt.
The other actor in this two-hander is Celeste Dodwell. Her remarkable depiction of the loving wife, slowly but surely, becoming totally isolated by her husband’s illness, is one that will stay with me for a very long time. Jane is the collateral damage: the innocent bystander struggling to come to terms with a husband she no longer recognises just as he starts to fail to recognise her.
Fortunately the evening is prevented from becoming one long mawk-fest by cleverly switching the action, between the story itself and delightful scenes, of the couple, discussing (and even enjoying) their story with each other and the audience.
Despite the terrible nature of the tale, Seagar and Dodwell manage to give Jane and Arthur the lightness to celebrate their relationship above the adversity and, as they gleefully bicker about the details, we immediately warm to them.
As the story gathers pace and Arthur’s condition deteriorates, so the couple’s story-telling input becomes less and less and the audience are left to discover the final years for themselves.
Although the action flits backwards and forwards over 40 years the characters stay young, just as they are to each other. This cleverly accentuates Arthur’s personal deterioration, courtesy of his rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s, making it all the more soul-destroying.
The audience is efficiently shepherded across the decades by slight adjustments to costume and clear lighting design by Will Alder, whilst the occasions of Arthur’s ever more regular episodes are heralded by skilfully introducing a range of unsettling sound effects – although none are more terrifying than the ticking of the clock as Jane’s life descends into endless days of tending to her once vibrant, funny, loving husband.
As with many productions at the Hope Theatre, the play and the performances are worthy of a larger audience than can squeeze into its tiny upstairs room. In the case of In Other Words and because of the special insight it gives into the condition, that should be made to happen.
Just a moment about Dementia. There is an ad in the programme but frustratingly, no contact number, so let’s do that now (National Dementia Helpline: 0300 222 11 22) – sadly most of us will be affected.