The Memory Show
The Memory Show
Book and lyrics by Sara Cooper
Music by Zach Redler
European Premiere- Drayton Arms, London
Cast: Caroline Maitland, Ruth Redman
Band: Jerome Van Den Berghe, Piaf Knight
Set Design: Alex Howarth
Lighting Design: Wil Monks
Producers: New Bard and Xinyi Shen
★★★★★ - 'gripping and compulsive viewing... a triumph' - LondonTheatre1
★★★★★- 'A heartbreaking show to watch, true, but still one that should be seen'- The Blog of Theatre Things
★★★★- 'will have you frantically calling home the second you step out of the theatre'- A Younger Theatre
London Theatre 1
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Neither character is particularly endearing, at least at face value, but this raw, no-holds-barred production leads the audience to empathise with both. In the old adage, the devil is in the detail, and minor points about, for instance, what exactly constitutes apple juice, plus an entire song sung whilst Daughter is cleaning the toilet, lend an aura of realism and authenticity to this show.
In a programme note, both composer Zach Redler and lyricist Sara Cooper write of their own experiences with family members who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it’s clear that these personal encounters have helped to make the show as compelling as it is. What surprised me was how deliberately jarring tunes paradoxically utterly failed to irritate. As Mother stumbles on her words, I was almost willing her to get it right; when she reached a stage where she was no longer able to, it was, I must admit, distressing – and, looking at it from a ‘How good was the acting?’ perspective, sublime.
The lighting is effective, and with some sparing use of projections. Strictly speaking they were not crucial because the script is more than sufficient at scene setting and driving the plot forward in itself, but I found the projections helpful nonetheless, at least partly reflecting what Mother does not remember anymore. While the whole show is beautifully multi-layered, it has one of the slowest and the quietest endings to a musical I’ve come across over the years – and one of the best.
It’s quite rare for me to get completely engrossed in a show, and this was one of those productions that I didn’t want to end. I had my doubts about whether a two-hander musical about dementia would work well. This is a triumph. Gripping and compulsive viewing, I have no hesitation in recommending it. At least I think so: The Memory Show has left such an impact, it now has me questioning my own brainpower. As Mother became ever-increasingly dependent on Daughter, I was (hopefully correctly) reminded of a line from Funny Girl The Musical: “People who need people / Are the luckiest people in the world.”
The Blog of Theatre Things
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Memory Show began life in 2008 as a thesis project for Sara Cooper and Zach Redler, both of whom had their own memories of seeing a loved one go through Alzheimer’s. And that may well be why watching this heartbreaking musical feels uncomfortably like intruding on a very private and intimate moment, between a mother diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and her daughter who reluctantly returns home to care for her. As their already tense relationship is put under ever greater strain, we’re presented with an unflinchingly honest view of the emotional and practical repercussions of caring for someone with this devastating condition, along with an exploration of the unpredictable nature of memory itself.
And so there’s a song about cleaning the toilet, and another listing all the things that need to be done before the mother passes away. The daughter, forced to be endlessly patient with a parent who’s more like a child, doesn’t hold back about her complicated mix of emotions; she loves her mother, and despises her at the same time for all she’s had to give up. She wants it all to be over, but wishes that it could be possible afterwards to call her mother for a chat. Often speaking directly out to the audience as her only other human contact in an increasingly claustrophobic situation, she explains about difficulties with doctors, and confesses her fears about whether she’s doing the right thing.
But as hard as this blunt honesty is to watch, there are also some lovely, tender moments – as they sit together on the sofa looking at potential matches on a dating website, they could be any mother and daughter, rather than a patient and her carer. And the final scene is bittersweet, because we know that whether or not the two can mend their relationship, it’s still going to be too late.
The relationship between Ruth Redman and Carolyn Maitland as the nameless mother and daughter is utterly convincing – the ups and downs, the bickering, the reminiscing – and both show flashes of the same feistiness. As they reflect on their difficult history together, one topic keeps recurring: Ira, late husband and father, who seems to be remembered very differently by the two women. One of them is remembering him wrong… but not necessarily the one we might expect – and the continued references to a ‘secret’ hold us in suspense until the truth is finally revealed.
The simply staged production, directed by Alex Howarth, finds the characters and audience confined within the pair’s living room, with a string of lights above their heads that illuminate during the mother’s brief, and increasingly rare, moments of clarity. Behind them, meanwhile, a white sheet provides a backdrop for flickering images from home movies, a haunting reminder of the life and happiness that’s slowly fading away.
The Memory Show paints a brutal picture of the horror that is Alzheimer’s, but it also leaves a powerful impression for those without direct experience of the disease. It’s a story of two people who learn how to love each other only when it’s too late, and encourages us to reflect on our own relationships, and the power of memory to make or break them. A heartbreaking show to watch, true, but still one that should be seen.
A Younger Theatre
At a time when London is abuzz with praise of The Father and The Mother, Florian Zeller’s twin portraits of parents losing their grip on reality, another show about dementia – albeit a slightly less anticipated one – is opening at South Kensington’s Drayton Arms. Sara Cooper and Zach Redler’s unambiguously titled The Memory Show is a two-handed musical, exploring the difficult relationship between a frustrated daughter and her senile mother in present-day New York. It is an unapologetically frank presentation of the confused havoc caused by early onset Alzheimer’s that distresses, moves and will have you frantically calling home the second you step out of the theatre.
Ruth Redman and Carolyn Maitland are utterly convincing as the nameless mother and daughter. Redman, the mother plagued by forgetfulness, gradually moves from confusion to frustration to paranoia, and finally to blank childishness. It’s a heart-breakingly obvious transformation, made all the worse by her brief flashes of lucidity. She paces around the stage, hunching her back and wringing her hands, occasionally uncoiling her anxiety to dwell on a distant childhood memory, only to resume her tormented action when some small detail escapes her.
Opposite her, Maitland is the epitome of a frustrated 30-something lacking direction. With no career or boyfriend, she is forced to move back home to care for and clean up after her mother. Her forced smile and patient facade are pitched just perfectly to suggest the mounting resentment and unhappiness underneath. When the strain becomes unbearable, she snaps with ferocity then immediately regrets it. Her conflicting responsibilities (towards herself and towards her mother) bubble dangerously throughout, which lends her performance an unpredictable – and extremely watchable – volatility.
Cooper freely admits that The Memory Show is a highly personal piece and this forces its way out through the authenticity of the dialogue. The incessant sniping, the vindictive point-scoring, the inability to let bygones be bygones – all ring with a discomforting truth, as do the more tender moments of genuine warmth and affection. Cooper’s writing is also disconcertingly repetitive, with the same phrases surfacing again and again. One empathises with the daughter’s fraying temper when she is asked “what’s wrong?” for the seventh time in a minute.
Cooper has structured the piece, largely a fluid combination of explications, monologues and bitter exchanges, around the changing seasons. The vanishing leaves and impending winter are a not-so-subtle metaphor for the mother’s approaching death. Overhanging all is the two women’s differing opinion on the absent man in their lives: the mother’s shallow scumbag husband or the daughter’s caring, attentive father? “One day I’m gonna tell you a secret”, repeats the mother, neatly setting up the piece’s revelatory conclusion.
A thoughtful, honest production.