In Other Words isn’t the first play to make me cry this year but it is the first one to make me sob. I had tears running down my face for about two thirds of the running time, just about held back the ugly crying by not saying anything to friends as I dashed out of the Hope Theatre, and then I sobbed all the way down Upper Street and the Victoria line (thank to the lady who offered me a tissue, Londoners aren’t all bad you know), completely emotionally broken.
Dementia is one of those subjects that just gets me right there (in not unconnected news, it won’t surprise you that I couldn’t bear to watch Amour in a cinema or that I find Judy Parfitt’s work in Call the Midwife as Sister Monica Joan deeply affecting). And based as it is on the playwright’s studies into the condition and the extraordinary way in which sensory stimulation – particularly playing music – can sometimes find a way through it, Matthew Seager’s In Other Words is a deeply sincere and moving play.
It tells the story of the lifelong love between Arthur and Jane, from their meet-cute in a bar over some spilled red wine, through 50 years, to the residential care home where she dutifully visits the man who has become a shadow of her husband. And throughout, we flash on vignettes of their story, recalling happy memories as well as difficult ones, the power of a Frank Sinatra song to salve any bumps in their relationship, the heavy weight of dread increasing as the realities of a fading memory become starkly apparent.
Paul Brotherston’s production has the couple narrating this story to us, which provides a useful periodic break from the emotional intensity as well as deepening the storytelling. And it is remarkably intense, extraordinarily bold light (Will Alder) and sound (Iida Aino) design spare us nothing in the episodes where they suggest something of the disorienting clamour afflicting Arthur, and even in their subtler moments remain crystal clear about the dark and disquiet that Alzheimer’s wields over people.
Seager plays Arthur with real charm and warmth, tracking his haunting deterioration with sensitive skill. And Celeste Dodwell gives the kind of shattering performance that sears itself into the mind as Jane. Determined to support her husband through thick and thin, through the impossibility of trying to remain positive in the most desperate of situations, her most powerful moment is the unspoken collapse on her face during an appointment with the doctor, where you see her realising like a hammer blow that she has to turn from wife to carer.
All along, the strains of Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ act as an anchor both for Arthur and Jane as the storytellers, for emotional release, and as the subject of their story, as the work of Playlist for Life attests to the amazing hold on us that music can retain. As heartbroken as it left me in its deeply humane portrayal of love, I’d still strongly recommend trying to catch this in its final week.