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Autobiographer, Toynbee Studios

Written and directed by Melanie Wilson

Pros: An enchanting lighting design and equally great sound for such a modest venue. Offers a compelling perspective on the important issue of dementia.
Cons: A little wordy and lengthy in places, didn’t quite hold my attention throughout. Not suitable for those who don’t like ‘artsy’ drama.
Our Verdict: If you’re looking for serious fringe theatre, look no further. To be honest, you should go just for the pleasure of the lighting design alone! 
Courtesy of ArtsAdmin

The theatre has always been a medium through which we try to understand the complex nature of our minds, and no mind is more complex than one afflicted by the onset of dementia. The information on the back of the programme tells us that 750,000 people in the UK live with dementia and in 30 years the number will reach 1.4 million. These figures should make us young’uns want to gain more of an insight into what it might feel like to develop the disease.

That’s what makes this piece by Melanie Wilson so important, as it doesn’t allow us to simply sit back, relax and watch someone pacing around the stage ‘with dementia’. Instead it puts us in the midst of Flora’s broken thoughts, using actual last remembered moments of the life of someone with the disease. By making us an integral part of the experience, this play affords more integrity and sobriety to the issue of dementia, which I feel is an important achievement.
Fuel Theatre has collaborated with Wilson, who is also one of the actors, to create a performance of superb quality. All four women portray the same character, Flora, as she struggles to keep her thoughts succinct and all give equally compelling performances. Watching different members of the audience along the front rows engage bashfully with the character was engaging as well. As I watched, it occurred to me that the complexity of the mind is actually best portrayed by the simplest methods: layered voices, a sequence of lights, and the constant repetition of phrases and unanswerable questions are all simple enough techniques, but where the skill truly lies is in orchestrating all these things to build up in a way that unnerves the audience so that we feel almost as lost as Flora.
The level of attention and painstaking effort that has gone into both the lighting and sound designs, a collaboration between Melanie Wilson, Peter Arnold and Ben Pacey, impressed me more than any other fringe production I’ve seen. The large number of suspended light bulbs from a fragmented false ceiling is particularly stunning and sequenced in a way that reflects the scattered nature of Flora’s thoughts. The sound is also fragmented, but it is constantly there, even if faintly, so that it actually feels like the kind of noise that might be in a person’s mind – an insistent backdrop of different sounds, some dragged up from a barely remembered past. 
In this way, the script becomes more than simply the poetic words; it is the lighting, the sounds surrounding us and even the audience members, who are made to feel like the ‘other’ or ‘them’ for most of the performance. However at times, and in particular during an unnervingly long period of pitch black, I felt it was I who was being isolated, in much the same way as Flora feels. 
You can definitely feel the poetry in the script and there’s some brilliant wordplay in places. It does lean a little heavily on the ‘artsy’ or ‘abstract’ side of things however, and it has to be said that this isn’t among my favourite types of theatre. As a result, I did find my attention drifting slightly from time to time, especially in the middle somewhere (although this could be due to my short attention…. wait, what was I saying?!).
So although we felt that this was in many ways an excellent production, it isn’t one that we would recommend every man and his dog flocking to see. Think about it first; it’s poetic, beautifully staged and often mesmirising, but this is deeply abstract drama. The programme actually describes it as a ‘poem for performance’, and if you aren’t that way inclined then you won’t enjoy it and you’ll end up fidgeting, giggling and annoying those who are enjoying it. If you are that way inclined however, then you won’t find a much better production than this one.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!

Autobiographer runs at the Toynbee Studios, ArtsAdmin, until 5th May 2012.
Box Office: 020 7650 2350 or book online at http://www.artsadmin.co.uk/events/3033

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