It’s taken me a while to process what I saw on Tuesday night at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. National Theatre Wales seemed to create a sensory experience before even setting foot in the theatre space. As we settled in our seats, the lady next to me commented how much the set looked just like a nursing home – I was sure the heat of the auditorium and (I thought) faintest smell of disinfectant were part and parcel of the show – or was I imagining it? It seems I’d misjudged the show and its assumed setting before it even began.
The play won over the audience from the get-go as the characters emerge and we begin to see small vignettes and glimpses into their lives. These scenes cross over, interrupt one another and interface with their communal experience of singing in a choir. The set, beautifully designed by Anna Fleischle and her team, contextualises the rich landscape and history of the community where it is set on five digital windows, creating a vivid backdrop for the action on stage. This staging helps build up momentum and keep the play pacey and light, full of visual morsels and edgy, familiar riffs and melodies. The songs had a visible, moving effect on the audience as the connections between the songs and the choir members were played out. We see how the tangled personal lives of our loved ones are at odds with bureaucratic ‘local service providers’ and how at odds we are as a system to provide well-meaning person-centred care and support. There is one poignant moment where ex-police officer ‘Evan’ struggles to comprehend why a social worker is giving him a ‘needs assessment’ using an iPad: ”In my day, we had a pencil and a pad’, he muses while the social worker retorts: “Yes but I can see a whole street in New York LIVE if I want to…”. “Why…?” Evan says, completely exasperated by the whole thing. In that precise moment, Evan becomes our Dad, our Uncle, our Granddad…and probably us in the future, too.
Miner ‘Rocky’ is trapped in his past as an ex-picketing Collier and there is an on-going clash as Evan and Rocky dredge up previous battles fought during the Miners’ strike. Throughout the play we see dear Evan crumble as his daughter Gemma facilitates his confusion and takes advantage of his finances, causing him to lose his home and his grip on his own life and independence. We’re introduced to ex-punk Joe and his wife Dyanne who is doing her best to cope with Joe’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimers. The first half, culminating in a rousing rendition of ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash, was tender and bittersweet.
The second half delves more in to the personal struggles of the characters as their meeting hub, the local library, is earmarked for closure as part of austerity measures (“Tory bastards!” Rocky spits out….and his frustrations with Tory Britain in the 80s seem as relevant as ever). As Joe struggles to comprehend and find words to air his frustrations, the couple clash causing Joe to lash out – there is a powerful scene between them as Joe becomes frightened and agitated and the police are called. Meanwhile, ex-librarian and Opera singer Marjorie is losing her grip on her orderly lifestyle and not even post-it notes can help her anymore. Will she be able to find her voice again?
In the second half, the pace of the play seemed to lose the hold for me slightly and lacked the initial punch of the first half. At times, the play reminded me of Jonathan Larson’s ‘Rent’ and seemed awkward in places as the scenes became longer. Rocky’s character was troubling for me. Jones clearly has a fondness for the Valleys and a clear message about their demise and future challenges. But the play does teeter very close to the edge of romanticism and sentimentality for a time when ‘everyone stood up for their rights’ and our communities were OK then. I find it awkward when the stereotype of the ‘wistful, mournful miner’ finds his way in to so many plays depicting Welsh/Valleys life (and this is coming from the Granddaughter of a Rhondda miner). There was something not quite right about the face-off between Rocky and the ‘Hoody’ who betrayed him.
That being said, the eventual coming together of Evan and Rocky was touching. They are after all, two sides of the same coin; both insecure, frightened and haunted by their past. Gemma’s treatment of her sweet Father Evan highlights the ugly side of all of us; too lacking in time, too impatient and to wrapped up in our own lives to care about the stuff that really matters. There is nothing like dementia or Alzheimer’s to drive this reality home. We see that it is all-encompassing and full of conflict for all who are touched by it. But it is a leveller, too. And we are reminded that living well is just as important as managing the condition. Exasperated by the choir’s experience at the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ audition in Cardiff, mild-mannered Marge pipes up: “We are not SUFFERING from Alzheimer’s, we are living with it!”
The choir remind us that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does not mean that they ‘become’ their illness. There are shadows and small reminders that they are still there, if we care to look for them. In Isabelle’s tapping (as an ex-secretary), Ex-punk Joe not conforming when his wife wants him to get ready for an appointment: ‘Naughty boy!’ he shouts. This is what he was…and perhaps still is: a rebel at heart. We see it in the resilience and strength of character of Evan, despite being hemmed in and pressured to move in to a care home. This play is all of us. We are all Evan and Rocky and Gemma and the patronising stand-in choir director. Patrick Jones reminds us that even when the soul of a community is shut-down, threatened and it seems that all hope is lost, we are strongest when we find our community – wherever or whatever that community means to you.
Before I Leave
Venue: Sherman Theatre
Dates: 27 May – 11 June, PN 31st May
Director: Matthew Dunster
Written by: Patrick Jones
Design: Anna Fleischle
Technical: Heddwyn Davies/Andy Evans (Sound), Dyfan Jones (Music), Angharad Matthews (Costume), Dick Straker (Video designer), Joe Fletcher (Lighting)
Cast includes: Desmond Barrit (Evan), Olwen Rees (Isabelle), Dafydd Hywel (Rocky), Llinos Daniel (Gemma), Martin Marquez (Joe), Melanie Walters (Dyanne) and Oliver Wood (Scott)
Running time: 2hrs 30min