One Last Waltz: a story about dementia

One Last Waltz

Something that I love about the Studio is how it really engages with issues that matter to people. One example of this is upcoming production One Last Waltz – a touching new play about living with dementia. Playwright Luke Adamson talks us through his personal inspiration for the piece.

One Last Waltz was an interesting play to write. Often when writing I set off at a million miles an hour and stall about five pages in with no idea where I’m going next but this was different.

I’d had an idea in my head for a while that I wanted to write a play mainly for actresses, I have never quite been satisfied with the female characters in my writing and there seems to be dearth of interesting parts in interesting plays for older actresses. So I set myself the challenge of writing a play that contained interesting, three dimensional characters for older actresses.

I began constructing the characters without any real idea where I was going to go with them and after a while I abandoned the early drafts and waited for some kind of inspiration. Unfortunately this came in the form of my Grandad’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Grandad had long been somewhat of an idol to me, I was even given the nickname “little Ernie” as a kid as I was so much like him. Living alone as a widower well into his eighties, he was battling on admirably but small things had started to happen.

He’d forget little things. Not big things like who we were or who he was, but small things, like where he’d put his keys, what he’d had for breakfast. We chalked this up to ‘growing old’ at first but then things started to happen that we couldn’t continue to ignore, putting metal things in the microwave or plastic in the oven, these moments of forgetfulness began to cause tension, often leading to arguments, with Grandad becoming even more flustered and confused.

The eventual diagnosis of Alzheimer’s came as quite a relief to me, suddenly we understood why these things were happening, why he’d forget or get confused, and once he started on the medication we saw an instant improvement. I was just frustrated that we hadn’t known these things earlier, that we hadn’t spotted it. We’d be getting angry with him, insisting that he try to remember where he had put his jumper rather than simply helping him to find it.

I was reflecting on this one evening when suddenly I saw how the characters that had been sitting inside my head could come together. I remembered once seeing an advert about Alzheimer’s that said “the earlier we spot it, the more of your loved one we can save” that always stuck with me but when it happened to us we didn’t know what we were looking out for! One Last Waltz is my way of using humour and emotion to try and signpost the things to look out for.

The character of Alice in the play went on to become a kind of amalgamation of my Grandad and his late wife; my Grandma and Alice’s daughter Mandy is heavily influenced by all of the strong northern women in my life.

A lot of the content in the play is based on real life experiences, some of the dialogue even lifted verbatim from actual conversations I’ve had. Some is, of course, embellished for the stage, some is complete fabrication. Once I knew what I wanted the play to achieve and how my characters were going to help me do this I sat down to write the play and finished it within a month, without stalling.

After a little fine tuning and editing we held a rehearsed reading to an invited audience in Leeds and based on their feedback I made some more changes resulting in the script we have now: hopefully a funny, moving and enlightening look at how to spot Alzheimer’s and how to deal with it. I was delighted when a representative from The Alzheimer’s Society read the script and (with a couple of minor adjustments to some of the dialogue) gave it their seal of approval.

One Last Waltz is, if you like, a tribute to my Grandad, as he is now, and as he was. Hopefully now immortalised in play form.

One Last Waltz comes to The Marlowe Studio on Thursday 8 October as part of a national tour. The performance will be followed by a discussion with the company.

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