Review: Old Fools, Southwark Playhouse

A shadow play of memories. That is Tristan Bernays’ Old Fools presented at the Southwark Playhouse for its world premiere. It focuses on the couple Tom (Mark Arends) and Viv (Frances Grey), their relationship and their struggle with Alzheimer. The story is revealed throughout time, in a fragmented juxtaposition of shared memories, gradually dissolving towards the end.

Tom and Viv get to know each other through a dance, they travel the world, form a home and become a daughter, Alice. They love each other, but they also fight. Not only each other, but also the loss of memory, the loss of the idea of home and family and the own self.

Old Fools, directed by Sharon Burrell, is set in an arena theatre. The simplicity of the stage setting brutally unmasks the intimacy and honesty between the two people for the audience. The starting point of a dance (Movement Director Lucie Pankhurst) is a reference for Tom’s and Viv’s relationship, a vivid and witty portrayal, which moves through space and time.  

Bernays created a bravura of a play which bridges time jumps through a skilful use of a montage technique, where the end of a scene creates the beginning for the next. The distortion of time is skilfully supported by the lighting design of Peter Small. The audience is guided through several light changes suggesting the fragmentation of time’s linearity. The playfulness with the flow of time refers to the process of memory: the older moments of their shared story is barely lit, but a longer sequence in comparison to the shorter, but brighter sequences of the later relationship. Significant are the shadows, which, grow bigger and thus cover the stage of the couple’s relationship. The absent presence of what have been and is not anymore, is visually captivating as the core of the story, moments’ fleetingness.

The performance of Arends and Grey is utterly convincing. Their energy and adaptation into each individual scene frames the storytelling and guides the audience, but also each other through their shared life. The connection of them both is strong and thus turns their dialogue in a bravura of a performance. The bodily transformation of Arends into a character suffering from Alzheimer is precise and astonishing: the dark, absent gaze, the stiff awkwardness of the body separated from the mind. The vanishing of Tom is outstandingly embodied. Grey convinces as wife Viv and daughter Alice as she presents facets of her acting skill. In this way, further aspects of Tom’s family life are shown to stress his change in time.

The last scene is a merge of a heart-warming and heart-breaking dance of melancholy as Bernays aimed for. Therefore, Old Fools ends on a strong, intimate and touching note, which was already present throughout this masterpiece of a 60-minute performance. Even though, the portrayal of the daughter-father relationship is a great addition to the plot and the family portray, it is confusing in the first scenario and slightly distracts the storyline. Additionally, the revelation of the mother-son relationship is unnecessary for the development of the play as it also creates confusion towards the end. If the focus lies on Tom’s distorted memories, this decision needs to be stronger communicated or altered altogether.
Old Fools is a must-see for every theatre-goer, who enjoys a fragmented love story, not only of two people, but of a home, of a shared past and an unpredictable future.

Bernays created a touching and honest portrayal of what it means when an illness like Alzheimer’s creeps into one’s life and thus, distorts shared past and shared dreams of a future in togetherness. This journey with Tom and Viv should not be missed as it is in all senses convincing and deeply moving.  

Old Fools is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 7th of April. For more information and tickets, see southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/old-fools/.

Lara Domke

Lara Domke

Lara is an emerging theatre-maker especially interested in the mind and the gap between the body. Therefore, she writes and performs (self-)consciously. She is about to finish her BA Performance studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2018. Crossing the borders to go home to Germany and on holiday, she also loves travelling from the real world.