There have been a number of plays exploring dementia in the last few years, the highest profile as far as London theatre is concerned probably being The Father and The Mother, both by Florian Zeller.
Elsewhere, Brian Daniels penned a play called Don’t Leave Me Now, and Belinda Lazenby wrote Grandma Remember Me? In addition, Still Alice, a motion picture released early last year, led to a deserved Academy Award for Best Actress for its lead, Julianne Moore.
This production of The Memory Show is another, if different, absorbing look at such a devastating illness, and excels in being a musical looking at Alzheimer’s. While not being entirely unique as a musical on this topic – Alzheimer’s The Musical played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011 – it manages to treat a difficult subject with both humour and sensitivity, revealing frustrations in both the carer Daughter (Carolyn Maitland) and the cared for Mother (Ruth Redman).
The science of early onset Alzheimer’s is explored, but only to a degree: the focus here is very much on family relations, the almost inevitable strain it takes on both sides, especially between two people who never really got along very well, and a thrilling and intriguing narrative in which rather more than would ordinarily be expected comes to the fore. Mother has, after all, now receded to the point where she no longer knows who the President of the United States is, a point skilfully explored as early as the show’s jaunty opening number.
The songs are more comparable to the tunes of Jason Robert Brown than the tunes of, say, the Gershwin brothers (the audience does not exactly file out afterwards humming an encored big song-and-dance number). The only Ira mentioned here is, well, an unseen character who I won’t bother explaining as it would take us well into spoiler territory. Anyway, these are tunes laden with narrative, and if it’s not exactly pleasant to listen to, that’s only because it isn’t meant to be.
Neither character is particularly endearing, at least at face value, but this raw, no-holds-barred production leads the audience to empathise with both. In the old adage, the devil is in the detail, and minor points about, for instance, what exactly constitutes apple juice, plus an entire song sung whilst Daughter is cleaning the toilet, lend an aura of realism and authenticity to this show.
In a programme note, both composer Zach Redler and lyricist Sara Cooper write of their own experiences with family members who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it’s clear that these personal encounters have helped to make the show as compelling as it is. What surprised me was how deliberately jarring tunes paradoxically utterly failed to irritate. As Mother stumbles on her words, I was almost willing her to get it right; when she reached a stage where she was no longer able to, it was, I must admit, distressing – and, looking at it from a ‘How good was the acting?’ perspective, sublime.
The lighting is effective, and with some sparing use of projections. Strictly speaking they were not crucial because the script is more than sufficient at scene setting and driving the plot forward in itself, but I found the projections helpful nonetheless, at least partly reflecting what Mother does not remember anymore. While the whole show is beautifully multi-layered, it has one of the slowest and the quietest endings to a musical I’ve come across over the years – and one of the best.
It’s quite rare for me to get completely engrossed in a show, and this was one of those productions that I didn’t want to end. I had my doubts about whether a two-hander musical about dementia would work well. This is a triumph. Gripping and compulsive viewing, I have no hesitation in recommending it. At least I think so: The Memory Show has left such an impact, it now has me questioning my own brainpower. As Mother became ever-increasingly dependent on Daughter, I was (hopefully correctly) reminded of a line from Funny Girl The Musical: “People who need people / Are the luckiest people in the world.”
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Memory Show
When a daughter comes home to care for her aging mother, the pressure starts to build on their turbulent relationship. Forced to live side by side, will they ever reach an understanding as they unravel their conflicting memories of the past? Produced by New Bard Productions and Verse Unbound, this European Premiere of the critically acclaimed contemporary musical presents an honest and bitterly funny portrait of a mother, a daughter and their relationship with cruel realities.
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Written by the 2014 Winners of the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award, Redler and Cooper, this production stars Carolyn Maitland (Miss Saigon, From Here to Eternity) and Ruth Redman (Passion Play, Ghosts), with direction by Alex Howarth.
Writer : Music Zach Redler | Book & Lyrics Sara Cooper
Director : Alex Howarth
Music Zach Redler
Book & Lyrics Sara Cooper
Music Director Jerome van den Berghe
Lighting Designer Will Monks
Graphic Designer Callum Ritchie
Stage Manager Zhe Cui
Lighting Assistant Rachel Sampley
Production Companies: New Bard Productions Ltd, Verse Unbound Ltd.
The Memory Show
Thursday, 11th February 2016 – Saturday, 20th February 2016