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An Old Song, Half Forgotten: This play shouldn’t really work but it’s a compelling celebration of a life in theatre

Theatre: Bryan Murray, who has Alzheimer’s, gives a deft, graceful performance as a veteran actor with the disease

An Old Song, Half Forgotten

Peacock stage, Abbey Theatre

“What are the memories I just cannot live without?” asks James O’Brien, who has Alzheimer’s disease. In An Old Song, Half Forgotten, we follow him on a journey through the significant moments of his life as he revisits a past that he soon will not remember.

James is a veteran actor whose life echoes that of Bryan Murray, who plays him. The Irish theatre stalwart, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s himself, presents a tangible connection to the subject matter by willingly confronting the cruel reality of memory loss and its impact on an actor’s career.

Deirdre Kinahan’s writing and Louise Lowe’s direction result in a visually and stylistically compelling play that uses a kind of aesthetic pragmatism to facilitate its star, who, because of his short-term-memory loss, receives his lines through an earpiece. He then performs this new (to him) script fresh each evening – and does so with deftness and grace. It shouldn’t really work but it’s clear that Lowe’s direction and Murray’s decades of theatre experience result in an economical yet energetic performance.

Murray is joined on stage by Matthew Malone, who performs a younger version of O’Brien. He becomes the elder O’Brien’s guide through the play’s intersecting worlds. As the two men revisit the sacred moments of their shared lives, they conjure a vision of an astounding life. Murray and Malone pass the burden of remembering back and forth like a precious but heavy jewel. Between them, they create a compelling duality that is accentuated by the striking visual aesthetics of the production’s design team.


The visual symmetry of Conor Jacob’s set and Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting stabilises the story, weighing it down with pillars of movable concrete and strips of lighting. Maree Kearns’s costume design adds a dimension to the elder O’Brien, presenting pointed visual clues to an exuberant and energetic past and adding warmth and texture to the hard, monolithic set.

The musical accompaniment is, however, perhaps the most effective element of this production’s design. A live string quartet plays at regular intervals, triggering the memory of the elder O’Brien and so facilitating these walks down memory lane.

Kinahan’s writing is at its strongest in this play and her intentional sparseness allows the concept room to breathe. The pacing towards the end is a little unwieldy but, intentionally or not, serves to remind the audience of the unpredictability of the disease at the heart of the work.

An Old Song, Half Forgotten is certainly sentimental but it makes a good case for why it should be. It is impossible to separate the onstage and offstage realities at play and there is an abundance of space within the frame to celebrate Murray while maintaining the make-believe of the drama. This duality, in fact, is what makes this production so successful. The bones of theatremaking are on display here and Kinahan succeeds in presenting a cruel reality with grace and heart.

Runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 1, until Saturday, May 6th