Dylan Moore finds NTW’s latest venture a worthy project masking a mediocre drama.
Before the huge cast of Patrick Jones’ new play leave the stage at Sherman Cymru, they are joined by some of those who inspired it: people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s, members of choirs from Merthyr and Wrexham, Barry and Brecon. Together they belt out the play’s signature song, written by Jones’ brother Nicky Wire and his bandmate James Dean Bradfield. ‘I’ll sing this song until I die / sing it slowly with some pride’. It is difficult not to be moved, and a standing ovation follows.
But it is hard to know who or what the ovation is for. Certainly, Before I Leave does a great service in terms of raising awareness about dementia; it is also highly commendable that the choirs themselves have been involved in the performances; the production team also deserve huge credit for some clever staging that allows the action to alternate between public spaces – community centre, library, and beneath a statue in a Valleys’ town square – and more intimate, private, domestic realms. Thus we see brave public faces and private pain. There is much to applaud and much to enjoy (a series of crowd-pleasing gags that recur throughout the play and an often lighthearted tone is key to undermining expectations of what a ‘play about a choir of dementia sufferers’ will be like). And yet something is missing.
For a play that wears its heart (and its politics) not so much on its sleeve but on its ‘Coal Not Dole’ t-shirt, front and centre, we end up surprisingly uninvested in the various tragedies that beset the unravelling lives of the characters. Rocky (Dafydd Hywel) is the stereotypical miner who has not forgotten the strike; his t-shirt complemented by an early eighties donkey jacket festooned with badges. Some days he thinks he is still on the picket line. His rival in the choir is Evan (Desmond Barrit), whose role as a policeman during those crucial months of industrial strife has never been forgiven. Most interesting, however, is the story of Joe (Martin Marquez), who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and his wife Dyanne (Melanie Walters), who supports him through thick and thin but struggles with the grief of what amounts to the loss of her husband.
The play’s central problem is its reliance on music for emotional intensity; it is a get out of jail free card for the script. As in Everything Must Go (1999), Jones’ jukebox is expertly deployed. The Jam and The Smiths feature prominently. But song lyrics often act in the stead of crafted interaction between characters. Echoes of the Eighties are also evident in the play’s politics, with several predictable rants about Thatcher followed up with video montage sequences depicting contemporary protests against cuts to public services juxtaposed with black and white images of the miners.
In a promising first half, choirmaster Scott (Oliver Wood) moulds a disparate, chaotic group of dementia sufferers into something resembling a functioning collective, and despite a preponderance of cliches, we have just enough grasp on the various threads of the story to invest in what may turn out to be a moving and involving piece of drama. But then an accusation is made against Scott which turns the story on its head, and this turning point marks the beginning of a rapid downward slide in the latter half.
Unconvincing characters are introduced, tragedy occurs apropos of nothing, and a play that has prided itself on engaging with social issues loses its grip on realism. There are even some tangents that call into question the seriousness of the play’s engagement with these issues (an elderly choir high on space cakes – seriously?) and certain scenes that verge on pantomime in their lack of subtlety: the whole choir chanting ‘We want Scott!’ on the bus ride home from a television talent contest is cringe-inducing proof that the play needed a script editor with a much more liberal attitude to thick black marker pens.
There is no doubt that Before I Leave has been a worthwhile social project with numerous spin-off schemes that will no doubt improve lives and draw attention to hugely important issues that have been neglected for far too long. It is to National Theatre Wales’ credit that there continues to be a focus on representing and empowering the marginalised. But the first test a project should pass, surely, is whether it stands up as drama.