Alan has just lost his wife. James has just lost his Mum. Jane was the link between them; how will they communicate now?
It’s often hard for fathers to talk to their grown-up sons, but Alan is James’s stepfather, and James is autistic. He sees things differently, doesn’t get sarcasm or jokes, and most of all he hates change. Jane made sense of the world for him – she was his translator. He doesn’t think Alan is up to the job (‘I suppose you could try’). But it’s not only James who finds communication difficult; Alan is struggling with his feelings too.
50 Words is a subtle, wonderful, show about two lost individuals who try to help each other through (Alan: ‘we’re a team’ – James; ‘two people don’t make a team, we can only be a pair.’) Perfectly performed by Alex Zawalnyski (James) & Luke Malone (Alan), the play opens with James delivering an information-monologue about his name, his initials and the fact that he likes Marmite better than jam.
The play is structured in an effective series of flashbacks introduced by James; in the first, Alan tells James that Jane has just died. Although it is ostensibly James who has trouble with communication, Alan can’t find the right words to explain the simple fact of her death He is used to our ‘normal’ practice of softening the truth, describing Jane as having ‘gone’, ‘gone to heaven’ – comforting himself as much as trying to comfort James, who is having no truck with the lies we use to make ourselves feel better – ‘it doesn’t make sense…heaven does not exist’.
Both Zawalnyski and Malone use body language to great effect – Alan’s taut, hunched frame shows us a man exhausted by his wife’s illness, bereft without her, knowing he must try to reach James. James’s upright, straightforward posture underlines his view of the world; a fact is a fact, and it’s facts that he likes. Yet even in this first scene James fiddles endlessly with his watch; he is no more at ease than Alan, he just expresses things in a different way. Instead of talking about his feelings he records his thoughts in a notebook, concocting a dialogue first with an imaginary friend, and then with his late mother, explaining things to himself through their voices. And Jane has left a notebook too – a book of rules to help Alan understand James’s autism.
At Jane’s funeral, Alan again finds it hard to make the speech he and Jane had planned, whereas it is James who, in the briefest of eulogies, says everything he needs to say;
‘I will miss her…she made sense to me.’
James’s great love in life is the shipping forecast. He likes it because it uses clearly defined terms – the regular weather forecast may use 36 different words for rain (he’s counted) but the shipping one ‘says what it means’. When Alan suggests a day out to cheer them both up, he doesn’t really mean a trip to a small town 25 miles north of Inverness, but James is determined to go to Cromarty because it’s one of the first areas the forecaster reads out, and it’s a ‘real place, unlike Dogger. That’s just a sandbank’.
James being James, no detail of the trip is left unplanned – every train, every bus, every timetable is checked and noted; Alan wants to keep James happy, so off they go. The journey to Cromarty is cleverly staged, with just two chairs and a series of boxes and cartons to represent the stations on the line. When the two of them finally arrive, a major storm means they can’t leave their hotel room, let alone go out on a boat round the lighthouse; James’s plans are thwarted and he is devastated. Everything he has been relying on to suppress his grief, to control the incomprehensible world around him, has failed. He goes into meltdown, hiding in a corner with his coat over his head.
And in this desperate situation, Alan finally manages to break through James’s carapace, and James almost shakes Alan’s hand. It’s a fine, poignant moment of understanding.
50 Words is the kind of show that the Fringe should be all about. It’s not big and flashy, but it tells a story that we all need to hear. It’s skillfully written, beautifully acted, and at times it’s also very funny. I loved it; do go.
50 Words is at Paradise in The Vault (Venue 29) 11 Merchant Street, at 10.30am every day until Saturday 10 August. Tickets from the Fringe Box Office, 180 High Street, in person, by calling 0131 226 000 or at https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/50-words.