Old Fools, Southwark Playhouse

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by guest critic Joanna Trainor

“Why have you stopped eating?” Viv asks Tom at the nursing home. “Why have you developed an entirely different accent in your old age?” Tom could reasonably respond.

This is a slightly harsh opener; Old Fools is one of those productions that has a few things to pick at but is redeemed by its ending. From their first meeting to a cold garden in a nursing room, this is the story of Tim and Viv and Alzheimer’s.

The Little is completely bare, because it’s the people and the stories that matter in Old Fools, but the staging feels awkward. There’s no need for larger-than-life sets or revolutionary directing but there’s a lot of craning your neck to see what’s going on and actors block each other frequently. It might be about the inner workings of a relationship but it needs to be opened up into the space more.

The accents are a bit dodgy in places, taking a tour around areas of the North and bits of Scotland, but Mark Arends and Frances Grey bring a real charm to the stage. Tom is certainly a flawed character, but his confidence – especially for a man wearing a sweater vest – his witty comments, and his openness makes his ending all the more devastating.

The star of the piece is Tristan Bernays’ beautiful writing. Dementia is so dominating that it can often be how we remember a person, but Bernays perfectly illustrates how important the little moments that make up a life are. Tom might not be able to remember them anymore, but the dances, the laughs, giving his daughter advice – all of it matters, not just the disease that stole them from him.

Old Fools’ storyline is brutal in places, not just because of how early Tom’s dementia seems to rear its head. Tom and Viv’s relationship is far from idyllic and there is a final confrontation that is unbearably cruel. Ideally this would be explored more, as the audience seems to be split about whether or not they can understand the decision that is made. But then the ending hits you like a steam train.*

Bernays’ final scene is simple and heartbreaking – the whole room burst into tears at the exact same moment. Suddenly all of the bits that don’t work tremendously well don’t seem to matter quite as much. Tom might not get to go out in the way he envisioned but that character lived one hell of a life.

Old Fools runs through 7 April.

*I’m not sure why we say steam train, they’re not that fast really.

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