Each May for the last decade Wales has held the Gwanwyn Festival, celebrating creativity in older age, which provides an opportunity for older people to get involved in different forms of the arts, whether visual, musical or literary. Last week I saw one of the many productions that have formed part of 2016’s festival, Karin Diamond’s play Belonging from the Re Live organisation, and this new production from National Theatre of Wales tackles the same topic of dementia.
But where Belonging was a small, intimate, thoughtful study of the emotional effects dementia can have on those living with the disease, Patrick Jones’s Before I Leave takes a bigger, brighter, more bombastic approach. That’s not say it’s without its emotional side, but by taking the magic of music as its door into the subject, the production automatically adopts a brasher, more West End feel.
Before I Leave does for the sensitive subject of dementia what Brassed Off did for brass bands and Billy Elliot did for ballet – it uses a universally relatable and inclusive story to deliver important messages about dementia, and in particular about living with and the treatment of the disease in Wales and the UK. In short, a group of dementia patients form a community choir in their local library, and it is the power of song and music that binds them together as comrades (despite some of them harbouring difficult grudges) and ultimately keeps them going.
As writer Patrick Jones says in his introduction, all of us can remember a song that meant so much to us at a certain point in life – first love, lost love, the best summer or the loneliest winter. And it is a demonstrable fact that music unlocks a door in the minds of many dementia sufferers that cannot be opened by conventional means. Those with memory problems often rewind to their younger days, returning to a time in their mind when perhaps they were happier. It’s almost like the brain uses nostalgia as an escape route for the failing mind. As the ability to form new memories is denied to them, they hold on to the past for as long as they can.
There are some delightful performances at the heart of Before I Leave. Martin Marquez plays fiftysomething rocker Joe who has early onset Alzheimer’s, and visits the choir with his wife Dyanne because music is the rock around which their very loving relationship has been formed. There’s that one song that connects them both – The Jam’s Going Underground – and there is a lot of truth and delicacy in Marquez and Melanie Walters’ portrayal of the couple. Martinez gives a well-observed and utterly convincing take on a man still in his prime but who is losing the things that matter most to him – his marriage, his memories and his music. Walters is equally as powerful in the scenes involving the more violent side of a relationship being torn apart by dementia.
There’s a lovely performance from Sara McGaughey as the officious Siobhan, who has chosen to stop visiting her mother in her care home because “she’s no longer my mother”. She does not remember her daughter any more, so Siobhan wonders what the point of seeing her is. There’s a wonderful scene between McGaughey and Walters where Dyanne insists there is a point, because her mother will know it’s her, but might not be able to say. There is a deep-seated tragedy to the character, and McGaughey brings a touching depth to the piece, as well as channeling her inner Celia Imrie!
Gaynor Morgan Rees brings palpable dignity to the role of opera-loving Marge who tragically loses her singing voice with the advent of dementia, and the relationship between Marge and joker Rocky (Dafydd Hywel) is touchingly played. Oliver Wood gives energy and loveable charm to choir leader Scott, but despite the loss of the character in the second half, Scott feels two-dimensional, with no real personality to speak of. He’s defiantly upbeat, and the character serves its purpose well, but it would have been nice to see a little more depth in the script.
Essentially this is an ensemble piece and it’s hard to choose a standout performance, but Desmond Barrit shines in the role of Evan, an old man who finds so much joy in his visits to the choir, but whose family life with his money-grabbing daughter Gemma lacks empathy. This is a superbly drawn and performed character, and the decline of Evan that we witness is stark, uncompromising and upsetting.
The singing is rousing and uplifting, especially when the choir tackles Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure, and I think my life has been enhanced just a little by seeing these ageing choristers leaping about to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face.
Structurally, Before I Leave is a little choppy, with short scenes interrupting longer ones which sometimes don’t quite fulfill their potential. Act one ends on a cliffhanger which does not have the impact on the second half that it should. There is an entire subplot where the choir attends a Britain’s Got Talent audition while they’re unintentionally high on cannabis-laced brownies, but it’s ultimately padding, and the only good thing to come out of this diversion is a hilarious performance from Vern Griffiths as self-important impresario Phillip Mitchell-Brooks. Give this character a play of his own, and cut the talent show out of Before I Leave altogether. It feels added on, as if the production team had one eye on film adaptation rights.
Before I Leave tackles the issue of dementia less subtly than Belonging. Some of the characters are beautifully three-dimensional, while others lack that same depth. While Evan and Joe have families that we witness trying to cope with their faltering loved ones, others like Marge, Isabelle and Rocky appear to have nobody, and come across more like cyphers than real people (the opera-loving Tory, the unionist Welsh miner etc). The story is told broadly, with a lot of humour and colour, and glimmers of nuance, but there’s so much more about living with dementia that is sadly not addressed.