Dementia’s intolerably cruel whoever it strikes. But for a man of words the loss takes on an extra poignancy. For someone with a vocabulary of 200,000 words to be struggling to find just one is heartbreaking.
Austin Michaels is a (fictional) world Scrabble champion, who now has Alzheimer’s. In Blank Tiles, we watch him recording his memories to dictaphone before they disappear forever. But almost as soon as we’ve started, the disease reveals its horrid progression. Time gets blurry. Recollections get confused with the present. The late grandmother who brought him up is alive once more. But we’re able to piece together enough of a timeline to form a biography – a reclusive childhood playing Scrabble with Gran, the life-shaking grief of losing her, tournament successes, the discovery of a wife who’d love him despite his nerdiness.
To be blunt, Austin is not the kind of man you’d like to be stuck with on a long train journey. His laugh and verbal ticks would have you excusing yourself to the next carriage. But he’s a great character to bring to stage, and Dylan Cole fully inhabits the role. It’s a strong, sympathetic performance that lets the audience into Austin’s big, but diminishing mind.
The joy of words is put across beautifully. Anagrams are one of Austin’s things. On that train journey you wouldn’t want to be stuck on, he’d be rearranging each station name with a grating laugh every time he did. But there’s a lovely device here – a magnetic scrabble board on which he decodes the “hidden” message in a motivational poster his grandmother bought him, which also somehow carries other anagrammatic advice for his future life without her.
As for the progression of his disease, the descent is neither steady, nor complete when he leaves the stage. Occasionally we step out of Austin’s real world into an imagined film noir where rather than being the nerd he is, he’s an American PI seducing his wife in a bar. So rather than a literal, chronological portrayal of its effects, we’re given an impression of what it might do a man like this. The approach works well as a whole, although leaves the audience uncertain as to when the show has finished.
Even with undiminished vocabulary, it’s hard to find the words to describe the pain of loss, but this portrayal does so very well.