National Theatre Wales
Sherman Cymru, Cardiff
Before I Leave is inspired by a group of choirs composed of people suffering with Dementia. The piece explores the fleeting healing power of music and the grim reality for people living with the condition. Patrick Jones’ play tells the story of different people affected by it in various ways, from a miner confused by the memories of the strike to a middle aged man with early onset Alzheimer’s, the play is a brief glimpse into living and coping with the condition day to day.
The cast is made up of actors and members of said choirs. Although collectively it is a strong cast, stand out performances go to Melanie Walters as Dyanne and Martin Marquez as her husband Joe. As a middle aged couple dealing with the condition before their time, their scenes are the most explosive and poignant. Walters delivers the scenes convincingly as the frustrated wife caring for her husband, driven to phoning the police, hopeless and desperate. Desmond Barrit as Evan is also fantastic as the man forced out of the comforts of his own home and thrust into a nursing home where he becomes isolated and more confused. It is these distressing scenes which really have an effect. Yes there are ups and downs with such a condition, but that usually happens retrospectively; at the time, the behaviour exhibited is disturbing and scary. It’s not all about funny moments of forgetfulness or singing at the Britain’s Got Talent auditions. And because of this production is not exactly balanced in its depiction of the condition; it needed more frank scenes, it needed to be bolder, to really reflect the reality of dementia. It often felt as if it was teetering on the edge of doing so but somehow it never quite managed to get a full grip on the meat of the subject.
The production becomes overly sentimental on several occasions, but does at times attempt to pull itself back just in time with a realistic shot of frankness. This however, is rare. The scenes are often short and some of them feel unnecessary, the responsibility of Patrick Jones to tell several different stories of such an array of characters is not fulfilled. It is impossible to tell the true stories of so many characters in such a short space of time. As a result, some characters are merely stock-type, while others remain under-developed. One wonders whether focusing more on the more intriguing figures such as Dyanne or Evan would have given the production the depth it needed. Songs are peppered throughout, well selected to reflect the personalities and emotions of the characters, ranging from The Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ to Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’. There are uplifting moments amongst the tribulations, but this is inevitably not all about happy endings.
There is use of panelling at the rear of the stage onto which backgrounds are projected, an innovative technique considering the short length of the scenes. Woven throughout the piece is the ongoing project of one character to write a song encompassing the memories of the characters affected, which culminates at the end of the play when the ensemble sing the song ‘Before I Leave’ penned by Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers.
The play is uplifting but is not necessarily a true reflection of living with the condition day to day. It is a play which reminds us of the importance of communities and projects which can offer help to those who need it most. It also tries to depict the harsh realities of those of us attempting to get on with our lives when everything starts to slip away, but it never quite manages to do so in a way which is deeply moving or significant. Whilst there are glimpses of this reality, they are short lived and need to be more substantial. Depicting a condition like this is undoubtedly a gigantic challenge, and whilst there may be glimpses of reality in Jones’ play, ultimately it is not enough to really portray the frightening world of Alzheimer’s and dementia.