Tissues. Check. Water bottle. Check. I was prepared for the emotional slaughter of my weekend happiness and witness R J Wilkinson’s The Smallest Story Ever Told at the King’s Head Theatre. Based on the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, I love a play which displays a brave heart and wants to shake our brains to simply “THINK“. Thanks to Still Alice (2014) with Julianne Moore, I had already been a messed up mascara victim so I predicted an equally moving tribute to those who have and lost loved ones to this cruel disease
“Charlie and Amy were married for twenty-three years. They were the darlings of the children’s literature circle. But, when Amy developed Alzheimer’s, their lives existed only in the story Charlie told her every day. Beginning from this present moment and working back to the time they first met, this tale highlights the importance of precious memories shared with the ones we love, and how devotion & heroism can often be the same thing.”
The Smallest Story Ever Told, 2015
Sitting below the pages tangled in hanging fishing nets, the play was already choked in desolation where two lonely chairs sat in darkness. Charlie Donnelly (Alastair Kirton) greeted us with a half-dead bouquet of flowers, talking to his wife’s grave. His hatred towards plastic flowers made me smirk at the memory of visiting my great great grandparents’ grave in Kingston Cemetery. Faded plastic flowers are pretty grim, but my Nan seemed to have an obsession with them and decorated her grandparents’ grave before her sudden passing. Personally, plastic flowers offered me with happy memories whilst Charlie suffered.
Alastair Kirton played Charlie with complete passion and spat out his words with true heartbreak and depression. His tenderness towards Amy told a story of a man barely holding it together. His love truly made him suffer. Witnessing a man deal with grief is a dark and dangerous treat, but Kirton led the audience through his journey of sadness to happiness.
The Smallest Story Ever Told catered for the naughty book betrayers who skip to the ending (Yes I’m talking to those Harry Potter readers who desperately wanted to know who died…hang your head in shame!) It is clear who dies in this play, but the drama in reverse was an interesting watch. I thought the action would be dizzying and disjointed, but it worked. From death to diagnosis, this “back-to-front“ love story grasps at the Donnelly’s memories and lays them out for 60 minutes.
Katharine Moraz gave an incredibly brave performance as Amy. Being a leading lady and embodying the complexities of Alzheimer’s disease. I applauded her sense of normality with strokes of sudden and unexpected comical relief. Masking her sadness with a brave and funny face, I admired her command of the stage and understood the lack of eye contact was to express the daze of a sufferer. Amy’s fixated “let’s get on with it“ attitude towards her diagnosis compared to her husband’s worries and her son’s quick escape for some air summed up the delicate nature of the play.
Flickers of sisterly love and silliness between Amy and Sally enabled eyes to dry before the next emotional punch. I yearned Kathryn Shenton’s Sally to have more stage time as it was clear that she was consumed with a lingering feistiness, especially her steaming pop at Charlie. Sally carried a contagious lively party spirit to get her sister high and drunk in order to relieve the symptoms, but mentally scarring her poor nephew (Amy’s son) Matthew in the process.
Described as “a little Doctor Who“, Matthew Donnelly (Jamie Scott-Smith) was the awkwardly shy teenage boy, finding it hard to cope with grief. Despite the age of the character versus the age of the actor scenario, Scott-Smith embodies many heart-breaking moments of vulnerability. Before fighting the urge to give him a cuddle, he provides a wonderful acoustic guitar session, echoing a softly spoken tribute through song. His mother’s unexpected response “are you getting enough sex?“ provides the play’s perfect hilarious chorus.
The constant presence of Dr Ursula Jenner (Juliet Knight) enabled a comforting hand for the family and audience. Throughout the story, she was the fountain of knowledge, acceptance and reassurance, but the name “Ursula“ annoyingly brought me visions of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Dr Jenner was the play’s soundboard and extremely responsive to the task of dealing with all the characters.
The comical genius belonged to the publishing agent Evan Cavendish (William De Coverly). His dry sense of humour created many hilarious mess ups as Amy and Charlie try to secure a book deal on speakerphone. Witnessing Amy’s first signs of Alzheimer’s, the mental battle between work and friendship exists, it’s the latter which provides him with a kind spirit. Like “sh****** all over the desk“, his presence was much needed and reminded the audience to laugh.
It was refreshing to see a strong set of female characters dominate the cast. From a caring doctor, passionate daughter to a lively aunt and working mother, the actresses covered all roles with emotional intelligence. Rather than falling into the stereotypical sights of emotional blubber wrecks, these women dedicated their voices to speak about the suffering and survival within the family dynamics. Rosie Grimes (Emily Bairstow) had a beautiful monologue which described the grief of losing a loved one and captured the pure essence of the heart-breaking disease. Bairstow brought a silent moment of remembrance.
The Smallest Story Ever Told packed a mighty punch within a short space of time. Leaving the theatre, I battled through the pub’s crowds with glossy eyes and the damned determination not to cry on Upper Street. Luckily, I could blame the freezing temperatures if I was spotted. Emotionally dazed, the play made you grateful for health, happiness and memories.
Big thanks to Jessica Cheetham