This Incredible Life arrives in Cardiff as part of a Welsh tour which includes a number of dementia-friendly performances, giving a clue as to the central theme of the play. This is only a part of the story, however.
Before the action begins, we are treated, courtesy of Jorge Lizalde’s video projections, to images of vintage Hollywood cheek-to-cheek dancing, setting up a deceptively, cosily nostalgic tone. We find ourselves in a comfortable drawing room. An elderly woman is serving a young man tea, cake and, for some reason, a whole cabbage.
We soon learn that Christopher Elson’s Robert is on a rare visit to Cardiff, to accompany his aunt, Mab – Sharon Morgan – to a ceremony in London, where she is to be honoured for her many years as a journalist. Mab worked her way up from the local press in Llanelli to The Times, but is now retired and, it soon becomes evident, prone to confusion.
Robert has worries of his own – his marriage is in trouble, and his corporate job in Oxford involves making uncomfortable decisions. Added to this, his aunt’s upcoming honour brings home not only his own abortive journalistic career, but also his grief over the death of his father, who followed his sister Mab into the newspaper business, and was killed, apparently in pursuit of a story involving organised crime.
Mab remains spirited, buoyed by her past achievements, and memories of a life lived fully if not always wisely. She is also keen, however, to rebuild her relationship with “Bertie”, and re-inspire him, in a manner which has echoes of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt.
She vividly recounts her exploits, aided by video-projected flashbacks with which she interacts, oblivious of the fact that Robert cannot see them. As she speaks, she constantly switches between English and Welsh – Robert understands her, but only ever responds in English; another sign of his having drifted away from his roots.
Director Julia Thomas foregrounds the comedy in Harris’ script, Elson playing Robert’s exasperation with an undertone of regret; Morgan equally appealing whether Mab is in playful or bemused mode.
Richard Barnard’s sparingly deployed score is suitably nostalgic; Sam Jones’ suburban sound design is subtle; and the lighting effects (courtesy of Nick Bache) cleverly reflect the contrast between Mab’s real and remembered (or misremembered) worlds.
The use of video is clever, and the occasional, inevitable issues with synchronisation are more than made up for by the simple but highly effective coup de théâtrewith which the piece concludes.
Harris gives us a strong, gently propulsive narrative which, via Mab’s colourful stories, explores the slippery relationship between truth, lies and memories. This Incredible Lifeis funny, moving, thoughtful and beautifully acted.
Main image: Sharon Morgan and Christopher Elson
Images: Kirsten McTernan
The play continues at:
Ysgol Aberconwy, Conwy: 08/10/18 – Tickets / Tocynnau: 01492 593243
Pontio, Bangor: 09/10/18
About the play:
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