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Fighting Alzheimer’s with theatre

Luke Adamson’s play One Last Waltz has just completed its run in the studio space at Greenwich theatre. I hope he manages to get it out on tour as soon as possible because Ms Alzheimer’s is the central – invisible but palpable – character and the play needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

Luke invited me first because I am a seasoned (or something) theatre critic and second because I am – a role I never sought – becoming ever better known as an Alzheimer’s commentator. One Last Waltz is a meeting of my two worlds.

When I mentioned, en passant, to My Loved One that I’d agreed to review a play about Alzheimer’s he said, quite brightly by his standards, “Well I suppose I ought to see that too. Can I come with you?” So I contacted Luke again to explain and, of course, we were both welcome.

To be honest I wasn’t at all sure it was a good idea for MLO to see it. Plays and films about Alzheimer’s (remember Iris and Still Alice?) tend to be pretty devastating because they focus on an inexorable downward trajectory and can end only one way. I try to keep MLO as chirpy as possible and I don’t encourage him to reflect on the possible (probable/inevitable) ghastliness of the future. In our situation it’s healthier to dwell in the moment and take each day as it comes.

I needn’t have worried. One Last Waltz tells the story of Alice (played by Amanda Reed). She has memory problems and her daughter is beginning to worry. The three person play, written as a tribute to Luke’s late grandfather is about coming to terms with the illness and seeking help – which means admitting that there are problems. Oh yes, MLO and I have been there, done that and are collecting a whole drawer-ful of tee-shirts.

We I grinned at each other in recognition several times during the 80 minute piece because Luke’s observations are uncannily truthful. Yes, it’s difficult to be sure what day of the week it is when your world is steadily narrowing. And that means you have little idea whether the appointment you’re fretting about is today, tomorrow or next week. Of course, you struggle to remember where you’ve put things which makes you irritable even with yourself. Then there’s the general getting annoyed with yourself and others because you’re not as you were – and disbelief when someone else puts you straight.

And we empathised a lot with Alice’s decision to go to Blackpool for a last waltz in the place she used to dance with her husband who has recently died. MLO has recently mentioned several things he’d like to do again and places with happy memories that he’d like to revisit. That’s why we’re going on holiday to Northumberland next month. He wants to go back to Cragside which has long been our favourite National Trust property. Fortunately he’s no dancer.

Of course One Last Waltz is poignant. It has one of the most powerful final lines I’ve heard in the theatre in quite a while. I had to mop up tears several times. Seeing it was, however, more cathartic than upsetting.

I’ve said before that one of the best ways of fighting Ms Alzheimer’s is to confront her openly, fearlessly and proactively rather than treating her as an unmentionable horror. Part of Luke’s agenda is to help to get Alzheimer’s freely discussed without stigma. “After all,” he said to me before the show, “Cancer used to frighten people so much that they couldn’t talk about it. Now they do and it’s much better. We have to do the same with Alzheimer’s”.

The most moving moment of all – for me at least – came after the play had ended. We stayed for the Q/A but listened rather than contributing. Then I popped off to the ladies which is up a few steps at Greenwich Theatre and told MLO to wait for me in the foyer at the lower level. When I emerged, I could see MLO down in the foyer, deep in conversation with Amanda Reed. I didn’t want to interrupt or affect the dynamic so I lurked behind a shelf of leaflets and watched quietly.

He was telling her, I think, how much he’d identified with her character in the play. Alice gets lost in Blackpool. MLO was describing the horror of getting lost in a large shopping centre on holiday last year. She was listening intently – an actor observing life, I suppose. And his dignity was intact because she was allowing him to communicate like a fully fledged human being despite the stumbles and hesitancies. What surprised and pleased me most about it was MLO’s finding the confidence spontaneously to share a few feelings with a stranger. That’s how much the play had freed him up.

Of course, on the way home I asked “Well? Was that the right decision? Are you glad you saw that?”.

“Definitely” he replied.

Never underestimate the power of drama. I’ve said/written that a few hundred times in other contexts, but it applies forcefully to Alzheimer’s too.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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