Blank Tiles

Thu 3rd – Sun 27th August 2017

reviews

Charlie Stone

at 13:54 on 13th Aug 2017

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A quirky and poignant masterpiece, 'Blank Tiles' is the tale of a man whose cheerful attitude and sometimes brilliant wit are not quite enough to disguise the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s. It is a superbly intelligent one-man show; the scrabble board playing a fundamental part in both the aesthetic and tragic aspects of the story. Dylan Cole acts masterfully as an ex-scrabble champion whose mind is deserting him.

The atmosphere of the show is perhaps not quite to everyone’s taste: an intimate venue puts one right up in the face of the quirky ‘Austin’, whose genial character verges on the annoying. This, though, is only a preliminary feeling, for not only do the audience get to know and sympathise with Austin more and more throughout the plot, but they begin to feel that they know him better than he knows himself. Cole expertly portrays the afflictions of memory loss, which are a medium as much for genuine comedy as its heart-breaking undertones. There is a great versatility of meaning in the production, where one phrase, such as ‘I don’t know any words!’ can play as a joke in one instance and a hard-hitting, tragic image in another.

The deeply heart-breaking effects of Alzheimer’s are presented to the audience through a character so optimistic and genuine that even the comedic moments are moving themselves, and fraught with painful significance. This is not a production that merely throws tragedy in our face, however. It is intelligently constructed, beautifully presented and skilfully developed. Certain props – a Rubik’s Cube, a letter from Austin’s wife, a few post-it notes – represent the brutal reality of mental disease. For it is the small details that hold the true meaning in this show - meaning that laughter and tears can frequently be provoked side by side.

Often, plays like this can lose power towards the end, as they move the audience to consider the reality of such issues rather than the fictional character undergoing the fallout. In this case, however, 'Blank Tiles' expertly allows the tragedy of Alzheimer’s to keep us engrossed in the personal story of Austin as well as the significance of his story. Its modernity is apparent, and a props table – which in other productions might appear out of place – is not at all incongruous and used elegantly. It is not, then, a conventional production, but this quirkiness and inventiveness make it a true gem, an eloquent and poignant exploration of a devastating mental illness. Well-acted, well-constructed and well-directed, 'Blank Tiles' is verging on a theatrical triumph.

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Elena Casale

at 14:57 on 13th Aug 2017

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‘Blank Tiles’ is the perceptive story of Austin, a former SCRABBLE world champion who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, in his attempt to document ‘journey of [his] fading mind’. Written and performed by Dylan Cole, the show conveys a touching balance of humour and pathos. What is truly remarkable, however, is the intricacy with which Cole documents Austin’s deterioration –it's an intellectual feat.

For the most part of the play, Austin’s Alzheimer lurks in the periphery. Instead, the monologue indulges in his life thus far and recounts it with bittersweet nostalgia broken up with Austin’s eccentric sense of humour. Unsurprisingly Austin is a fan of world-play, which proves rather comedic, but also has a knack for observational humour: ‘She looked exactly how you think a librarian would look… slightly annoyed at reality’. Some moments had the audience roaring with laughter, such as the way Austin recounts his SCRABBLE training regime complete with superstition rituals, sleeping in two hour intervals and even taking pills.

Unfortunately, the set itself proved to be quite limiting. Perhaps in an attempt to counteract this, Cole’s introduced an american impersonation for Austin at the moment he falls in love with Daisy, his wife. This sudden switch to an wild-west type character seemed out of place, and reflected poorly on Cole’s acting. However, Cole’s rendition of Austin was executed with careful detail: with each small lapse in memory came an arresting flicker of fear.

Cole’s writing ingeniously illustrates the way Austin has internalised the game, and uses this to help us visualise his deterioration. We see that SCRABBLE influences life just as life influences SCRABBLE: Austin’s favourite words, such as ‘maverick’ and ‘kumquat’, originate from the SCRABBLE matches he used to play with his grandmother. Conversely, he finds inspiration for his winning move in the SCRABBLE Championships from Daisy’s surname, Bench. This underlying idea is woven into the fabric of the script itself: in time, Austin relates his stories to one another, just as one might 'hook' on a word tile. Similarly, the cyclical repetition of certain motifs or words of significance are compounded multiplicatively in the play, gaining emotional momentum with each recurrence.

Indeed, the most outstanding part of the show was the elaboration with which his illness is conveyed. The choice to convey the illness through Austin’s point of view is a refreshing change from typical representations of Alzheimer’s. Yet, Cole’s script engineers the experience to invoke a startling amount of empathy for Austin through the concept of SCRABBLE. The word itself is a verb defined as ‘to scratch or grope around… to find, collect, or hold on to something’: soon, we see that the game is an elaborate metaphor for Alzheimer’s itself. For Austin, the SCRABBLE board not only represents his mental acuity, but is also highlights significant memories. In time, we see him lapse in attempts to connect the letters. Eventually, all he can form is ‘BRAIN GONE’, above a jumble of tiles.

By the end of the play, you feel as though you have a complete comprehension of the inner workings of Austin’s mind: you know him better than he does himself. The emotional crux arrives with an alarming suddenness. In a moment of memory loss, Austin rips up his lucky talisman – a letter from Daisy- and it’s agonising to watch. Whether you’re an avid SCRABBLE player, have a personal connection with dementia, or neither of the two, you’ll come away with the stark realisation that, as Austin remarks earlier in the play, it is our memories that ‘make us who we are’.

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