Pros: Deals with the issue of Alzheimer’s in a thoughtful and sensitive manner which considers the devastating effects on the patient as well as on those surrounding him.
Cons: The love story has too many American romcom and clichéd dialogues.
“It’s like plaque,” says the doctor. “You get clumps of it across the cells, blocking the pathways and signals . . . the messages to the brain get mixed up, wires get crossed which means the can’t carry all the things the cells need any more, so they die.” That’s Alzheimer’s. In the UK alone more than half a million people suffer from this irreversible disease with devastating effects for its victim and their loved ones.
Old Fools, currently at Southwark Playhouse, is the story of Tom (Mark Arends) and Viv’s (Frances Grey) relationship, and their struggle with Tom’s diagnosis of dementia at an early stage in life. Everything starts with love at first sight and a slow dance to “The Way You Look Tonight”. Viv is a teacher, Tom a musician. They move all over Europe, have a daughter, Alice, whom they both love; despite some setbacks, the couple enjoys an idyllic romance which endures their battle with Tom’s Alzheimer’s.
Florian Zeller set the bar high when he brought dementia to the stage with The Father in 2014. Tristan Bernays follows his steps with Old Fools and does it quite well, painting a sensitive and thoughtful portrait of a devastating illness which is equally sympathetic to the victim of the condition as to those surrounding him. Tom’s quick deterioration is as painful as Viv’s experience of it. Many eyes in the audience filled with tears when Tom mistakes Viv for her mother. It’s a relatable story where we see a feared future for us and our loved ones. The romantic relationship in itself is colourless, however; Hollywood-like, and chock-full of clichéd dialogues.
The strength of the play lies in Sharon Burrell’s highly skilful direction. Despite the lack of chronology it’s easy for the audience to locate the action both in space and time. I think this deserves a special mention now that there seems to be a trend in theatre to avoid linear narration, and which, in most occasions, produce confusing results. The leaps in time in Old Fools are perfectly smooth and integrated, assisted by a superb lighting direction which helps in differentiating the space/time transitions.
After a clumsy start, where the dialogue feels rather staged, both actors warm up and offer a finely executed performance. Mark Arends’ impersonation of Tom in the advanced stage of dementia is credible and moving; the acting is fully exposed in the bare stage. Although there is a complete absence of props (with the exception of a piano stool) and the actors wear the same clothes throughout, there’s no room for confusion when Frances Grey plays Alice (the couple’s daughter) and Tom’s doctor.
The production is supporting Alzheimer’s Research UK, another great reason to go and see it. Before the performance I had the chance of testing a VR experience simulating what living with Alzheimer’s involves. It’s been designed by the charity and is a very effective way of showing us how a brain affected by dementia works.
Author: Tristan Bernays
Director: Sharon Burrell
Producer: To the Moon and Making Productions
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/old-fools/#details
Booking Until: 7th April 2018