Music and memory are fundamentally entangled. Even when someone has advanced Alzheimer’s disease music can often return them to the world, albeit briefly. Max Barton’s moving show explores this connection.
Part gig, part performance, Barton’s show – much like Anais Mitchell’s awards-laden Hadestown – takes the form of a song cycle inspired by the Orpheus myth, but it’s far more intimate and personal. Barton’s 87-year-old grandmother, Flora, has Alzheimer’s and while she is still able to remember things, he sets out to piece together her past, particularly the years she spent running the Orpheus club in Swiss Cottage with her husband, but it proves elusive. Every time he unearths a relevant bit of information, it slips from his grip.
The show mixes songs performed by Barton, his sister Addison Axe and their Australian backing band – klezmer-inflected, faintly Tom Waits-y – with a discussion on the cognitive complexity of memory, and interviews with Barton’s grandmother, in which she lucidly and straightforwardly discusses what it’s like to forget things and then to forget she’s forgotten them, to forget that she’s now living in a world her husband no longer inhabits.
Atmospherically lit by Jethro Cooke, with little lamps flickering above the band members’ heads, it’s a frequently beautiful, heart-filling piece, even if it feels almost too slick in its execution at times. The digressions on the workings of memory feel a bit too pat and they detract from the emotional power of the show, which when it pushes Flora’s story to the fore, is considerable. The idea that music is a thread connecting this family together, across generations, beyond death, runs through the show like a river.