Old Fools (Southwark Playhouse)

Old Fools (Southwark Playhouse, until April 7th 2018)

Dementia can often be seen as a sensitive subject.  Its strain on relationships and individuals has often been explored on stage and screen, from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Florian Zeller’s The Father and more recently in the Oscar-winning film Coco.

Never an easy subject to portray in any kind of drama, or even to talk about frankly, it is perhaps ideal for scrutiny in the Arts, where imagination and creativity can dig to the heart of reality and reveal great truths.

Tristan Bernay’s poignant new drama, Old Fools, is the sort of piece that leaves you laughing and weeping at the same time, so clear is its understanding of the human condition, the distress of degenerative illness and the power of love. It recognises the heartbreak and the cruelty of dementia as well as picking up some of the humour and, in many ways, the positivity.

The enormous strength of this haunting, beautiful and powerful 60-minute two-hander is that while one character suffers from Alzheimer’s it does not dictate the course of the drama. In many ways that fact is incidental to the bigger story about a love that survives all that life has to throw at it, and which will endure even when one half of a relationship can no longer remember it.

Memory loss is cruel both for the person suffering and those around them, and it was clear on first night that this play has potency for many in the audience, who through their own experiences recognise the sense of desolation it can bring.

If there is puissance in the writing then it requires actors of fortitude, tenderness and empathy to make it believable and give it depth, and this Southwark Playhouse production boasts two heartbreaking and heartwarming performances from Mark Arends and Frances Grey.

They are Tom and Viv, whose story we see in short scenes which contrast the blossoming of their love from their tentative first meeting and through all the challenges, partings and forgiveness, with the stark frustration of an existence where every action and memory becomes a blank within seconds.

Arends is a forceful presence, whether conveying the enthusiasm of young love, the father figure to a cherished daughter, the temperamental child reprimanded by an exasperated mother, or the emptiness and state of unknowing caused by his progressive neurological condition. His eyes sparkle with life as he experiences true love for the first time, grapples with the uncertainty of his work as a musician and watches his daughter grow up, yet he manages to make them vacant and dull in the parts where his illness leaves him a shadow of his former self.  The way in which the play develops mirrors Tom’s own confused recollective state, jumping through time as events flash through the mind to be remembered or forgotten.

Grey effortlessly switches from the central role of Viv, exploring her strengths as a young lover to the isolation and exhaustion of being a carer, to play also other women in Tom’s life – mother, daughter, lover, and doctor. We know that her character strength will allow love to endure and will never leave her powerless, yet we are not spared the moments of pain, dejection and resentment. Her performance provides the passionate heart of the play, with every heartbeat as important as a ticking clock, her work as a translator turned into how best she can deal with situations almost impossible to decipher.

Together the performers create believable characters and situations, packing energy and emotion into the theatre’s intimate Little space.  We never doubt that the likeable (though flawed) couple at the heart of the story are devoted to one another, and the play remains credible and authentic as the narrative is unwrapped and unfolds.

Bernays skilfully weaves the strands of this boy meets girl tale together, proving that love never dies even in the painful moments and the course of true love never did run smooth, even as it slides and stumbles between the years.

Old Fools is an informative and important new play from an inventive young writer unafraid of challenging perceptions and finding heart-wrenching drama in the midst of the straightforward and ordinary. Brave and significant, it is a work that can change attitudes to an often misunderstood condition as well as cementing Bernays’ place as a major and forceful talent.

David Guest

Image: NatJames Photography


A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub