Review: Old Fools (Southwark Playhouse)

Tristan Bernays’ piece focuses on a couple who must deal with Alzheimer’s

Tristan Bernays' bittersweet new play is a study of two lives lived in love and then in illness. It's a slip of a thing at 60 minutes and although there are some moving moments, it really feels like it's only the beginning of a project.

We follow Viv and Tom, who meet at a dance, years ago. He's cheeky and flirty and she likes him. The piece then flashes forward and back through time, to their lives with a baby, living in Europe, highs and lows alongside days on beaches and taking their daughter to university.

Popping up throughout are also moments of tragedy. Tom, a talented pianist, is having some tests and can't seem to remember some of the objects in front of him, or read the time from a clock on the table. We see the day he zones out for the first time, confused and muddled, before zoning back in to focus on a worried Viv. Then there are the harder later days, when Viv is caring and Tom has all but gone.

The back and forward timeline reflects a little of what happens to Alzheimer's sufferers, as memories bleed into the present and dates and faces become jumbled. It's a technique that's been used before to cover this subject, but it is quietly upsetting. Watching the two of them, three when Frances Grey stops playing Viv to play their daughter Alice, adjust to the ravages of the disease is moving.

Mark Arends and Grey play Tom and Viv with beguiling ease and believability. Tom's confidence and exuberance, his thirst for life (when Viv suggests they move back from Europe to Reading he says: 'Why?') is starkly contrasted with the shell of him in the couple's later years. They build their love convincingly and they deal with the humour in Bernays' script very well. But the decision to have Grey play Alice jars a little: adults playing children is always a hard one to pull off.

Director Sharon Burrell keeps things very simple, like the play itself, with light changes to mark the movement of time. There's some occasional clunky blocking – it's played in the round, which feels like a mistake: the scenes occasionally get lost because you can't see the faces of both the characters.

Ultimately Old Fools is a snapshot of a little of what it means to live with Alzheimer's. Though the piece itself – and the characters – don't develop as much as is needed, it's nevertheless a poignant way to spend an hour.

Old Fools runs at Southwark Playhouse until 7 April.