For over twenty years Pip Utton has been bringing one-man character shows to the Fringe, captivating audiences with his portrayals of complex and controversial figures from history – Thatcher, Churchill, Hitler. This year’s show is something very different. And Before I Forget I Love You, I Love You is a very personal piece in which Utton plays someone with Alzheimer’s, based on the experience he went through with his own mother. He took time out from rehearsals to explain a little more…
You’re well known for playing famous characters. What was your motivation for doing this piece? Why now?
Now is the easiest to answer. I’m now 66 years old and my mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 68. So time might be limited! I also have left it until now because it’s several years since Mum died and I need to be able not to blub all the way through.
The dreadful effects on sufferers and carers are immense and yet there are always moments of lightness, humour and great love throughout the progress of Alzheimer’s and I wanted to reflect on all of that without being either too sentimental, too superficial or too depressing.
How did it feel putting it together, given its personal resonance?
The research opened many old wounds and pains and the tears often flowed. To watch the diminishing of self-awareness in sufferers and the pain their loved ones experience in seeing this is difficult to say the least. I have had to try to detach myself from the emotions as much as I could without treating it too coldly but it has not been easy or comfortable, and now that I am rehearsing it I am finding it to be one of the most emotionally draining things I have done for a long time.
How did you set about building the character and the piece? What sort of research was involved?
There is a wealth of information on the wonderful web of course: video, recordings and diaries of sufferers; many, many personal accounts from all standpoints; and a mountain of medical info to go through. But nothing is as important in the development of the character as physically spending time with sufferers and carers. In addition to all this I am “lucky” still to remember clearly Mum’s decline along with two of her sisters and to see the progression of the disease in her brother, my last surviving uncle.
What is it like “being” someone with Alzheimer’s? What sort of insight do you feel it’s given you?
Enormous feelings of frustration, anger, fear and a total lack of understanding what is happening to you. Slowly but surely you live in a world no one else comprehends. We all during our lives feel physical and mental pain and distress, and so we can empathise to sufferers of disease to a certain extent. But I don’t think we can possibly imagine how it can feel having the world you live in disappear and yet you still “live” in it. The biggest revelation for me has been the patience and love that loved ones continue to feel and give as they watch the person they love disappear so long before they eventually die.
How prepared do you feel for a month of something this emotive? It must be very different from a month playing Churchill or Thatcher.
I’m not expecting that I will come out of the performance space bouncing with smiles and laughs after the show, and yet I hope that any tears will be heartfelt and relatively short-lived. It is, after all, part of the job; to be able to convey emotions honestly but not to take them out into the rest of the day. That would not be constructive. This might sound clichéd and old-fashioned but I always think of Winston Churchill’s advice to orators (actors by another title!):
“Before he can inspire them with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself. When he would rouse their indignation his heart is filled with anger. Before he can move their tears his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe.”
What do you hope the audience to take from it?
I want my audience to be able to laugh, smile and cry with me. I don’t want them to come away thinking “what was that about?” I want them to recognise the character and emotions as being familiar and to go away talking about it for a while.