I’ve been a bit of a drama queen this month, lucky enough to catch Diana Nneka Atuona’s award winning debut Liberian Girl in London, as well as One Man Two Govnors in Edinburgh. So a home-grown Berwick production about a family affected by Alzheimers disease, on a cold, dark midweek night really wasn’t going to cut it. Sometimes I just love being wrong...
The Smallest Story Ever Told starts at the end, working backwards to reveal the impact of Early-onset Alzheimers on author, lover, wife and mother, Amy Donnelly. Sophie Armstrong plays Amy, who is stolen, bit by bit, from those devoted to her, by this brutal thief of the brain. It’s a remarkable piece of acting. So utterly real and likeable is Amy that we at once claim her every persona for ourselves. She is the mother, sister, wife and lover we wished we’d had. Or had been. Armstrong’s stunning ability for naturalism - hand gestures, the quiet titter, the confusion not spoken - that make losing her as much our trauma as that of her husband Charlie.
We are immediately introduced to Charlie, played with heartbreaking charm by Gary Robson, as he undergoes grief counselling with ever-patient psychiatrist Dr Jenner (Trudy Morrison). Robson matures in his role, conversely more comfortable with his younger free-spirited self at the end of the play - the moment he meets Amy -than with his actual middle age.
Clearly he prefers the company’s company as he demonstrates his comic timing with other members of the cast including cosmopolitan publisher Evan Cavendish, (Alex MacDonald Smith). A particular timing high is Amy’s decision to put an ecstasy trip on her bucket list. She is joined at first by her sister Sally, (the beautiful and brilliant Tamsin Davidson) and then one by one, all the other protagonists. It’s virtually impossible to act ‘off-your-face’ convincingly. But, they were so brilliant at it they managed to infect the audience with equally helpless laughter.
Although a minimal set, it was anything but a seemingly simple production. Ample potential for timing or technical disaster was provided by a full size cinema screen. However, a seamless blend of black and white footage and stark puppetry supported themes and filled the gaps in this back-to-front story.
From horrifying to hilarious, writer and Director R J Wilkinson (Sam & Isla Forever! and The Words in the Wires) plays arpeggio with his audience’s feelings. This is interspersed with sudden flashes of utter genius, where he combines all the notes into one great mismatched chord. Take the moment when 13 year old Matthew, coming to terms with his mum’s diagnosis, awkwardly tiptoes round the dangerous subject of love and loss through a song he has composed with lyrics pinched from her pen. This, whilst dressed in a Totoro onesie with a little wagging tail. Of course it produces a tsunami of tears but are we crying from laughter, or from pain?
Talking of pens, grab one and get Ross Slack’s autograph in the book now. At most he’s a couple of years older than the 13-year-old he plays, but he already has the emotional intelligence and empathy an actor needs to take him all the way to the Olivier Awards.Powerful and poignant, this warm-hearted domestic dramedy deserves to be adequately budgeted and developed.
The real tragedy would be to allow it hideaway in its hometown of Berwick and never get a chance to go out and explore the world.