Memories are all we have in the end; so says our ageing raconteur. But he has Alzheimer’s disease, and is in a bid to record his life story before he forgets everything.
In this engaging and funny solo show, writer and performer Dylan Cole becomes Austin Michaels, former Scrabble World Champion. Where once Michaels knew literally thousands of words, now he resorts to writing singular nouns on Post-Its – "granny", "house" – and speaking into a dictaphone to record events he wishes to remember.
There’s nothing startling about those events: boy grows up with Granny, boy plays Scrabble with Granny, boy meets girl, and so on. But they are thoughtfully delivered, with the aid of music from Nat King Cole and renditions of "Daisy". Michaels’s wife was Daisy, and she wrote the treasured good-luck note he carries with him at all times, in a safe place close to his heart.
The outward ordinariness of these recollections means they resonate easily, showing me how precious they must be to a fading individual – making their precarious endurance all the more disturbing. If memories really are all we have, Michaels shows us that real meaning is carried in snippets like these, perhaps more evocative of the true character before us than his anecdotal fame from winning at Scrabble.
But the game is a useful device to evoke the importance of words, easy to take for granted until dementia takes hold and slowly erases our character’s potential to express himself. And the set is effective in its minimalism: a Scrabble board on an easel to our speaker’s right, and a small table with pills, a Rubik’s cube and other detritus to his left. The spotlight is very much on our character and storyteller, and happily he succeeds in drawing us in straight away.
Cole captures some aspects of Michaels's condition well – the repetition of stories already told, the gradual forgetting, the use of a dictaphone to record a shopping list, for example. But I wasn’t keen on elements of Michaels's underlying persona, which I thought made him appear juvenile, and outwardly gave him less depth than his character revealed he had. I couldn’t comfortably laugh at awkward mannerisms, which created an unwelcome distance between us.
Overall though, Cole cleverly delivers a thought-provoking and well-considered piece, and is revealed as a sensitive writer. These days we’ve all heard about Alzheimer’s, but I’m lucky enough not to have encountered it in my own family. Through Michaels, I’ve had the privilege of acquaintance which broadens my own appreciation of this disease, and what it does to a person.