This review was originally written for 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.
Although there is a scattering of dry humour, watching The Memory Show is for the most part an uncompromisingly bleak experience. No redemption is possible and one is left only with the deep, deep sadness of a life being slowly erased. Why Cooper and Redler decided it would work as a musical, is therefore somewhat baffling. There is nothing wrong with Redler’s brisk score, which sways between uneasily pert numbers and more introspective, undulating ones – nor is there a problem with Maitland or Redman’s delivery – but the inclusion of songs does tend to cheapen the emotions evoked by the drama. Sober reflections are clinically packaged into boxes at five-minute intervals, rather than being allowed linger as they should be.
This occasional unexpected brightening of the tone is The Memory Show’s only real flaw, and it is one that can easily be overlooked in such a thoughtful, honest production.