Second Body’s beautiful multimedia exploration of memory, loss and the power of music
One of the cruellest diseases that can afflict an individual is Alzheimer’s, gradually erasing memory, sense of self and awareness of the bonds of love and friendship. My own mother, almost 94 now, has had dementia for some years, so I speak from personal experience.
The closest and most cherished of those relationships we get to share is that between grandparent and grandchild. Jewish writer/musician Max Barton lost his equally musical grandfather Michael to Alzheimer’s four years ago. When his widow, Barton's grandmother Flora, was diagnosed too, Max did what we are all well advised to do nowadays. He began to record his conversations with his grandmother, as he gently helped her to excavate her memories before it was too late. He replays these moving, funny recordings as a vital part of the show.
Musical ability seems to run in the family, as his sister Addison Axe is just as talented and also takes part in the show, which is rightly dubbed 'gig theatre'. It takes little more to fill the stage than the siblings and five other accomplished musicians; electric guitars set off by a pair of cool saxophones and a drummer. All of the band members get to share the narration too.
Led by Barton, the performers share the storytelling beneath a simple series of flickering light bulbs, one above each band member, turning on and off to illuminate their story and the thought process behind it. Barton explains that he wrote a song cycle based on the Greek myth of musician Orpheus and his doomed love for Eurydice. After she's killed by a snake bite, he's given a chance to rescue her from the Underworld, but on one condition: as she follows him back across the River Styx to the land of the living, he must not look back…
In one of those beautiful, inexplicable coincidences, Barton discovers (through painstaking research in the Jewish Chronicle’s classified ads archive) that in the 1950s his grandparents ran a music venue in Swiss Cottage, London, called the Orpheus Club. His search for the venue's premises merges with the myth.
As well as storytelling, music and the recordings of his funny, gentle conversations with his still feisty, self-aware and touchingly self-deprecating grandmother Flora, Barton adds to the narration snippets of research into the neuroscience of memory. And, perhaps most amusing, he also includes recordings of the band members’ attempts to remember the Orpheus story, which are scarcely more successful than Flora’s. The audience isn't let off the hook either, enjoined to close eyes and attempt to access a series of memories.
By the time Barton and Axe pass round shots of whisky and invite the audience to share the old Hebrew toast l’chaim (to life), emotions are running high. Whether or not you have, like me, been affected by living with a close relative with memory loss, I defy anyone in the audience of STYX not to fight back a tear.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Ilme Vysniauskaite
STYX runs until Saturday 14 September. 7.30pm. £14, £12 concs. Playground Theatre, W10 6RQ. https://theplaygroundtheatre.london
Then Sunday 15 - Thursday 19 September. 7.45pm, 6.30pm (Sun only). £14, £12 concs. Streatham Space Project, SW2 4PA. www.streathamspaceproject.co.uk