A man stands alone on the stage, in pyjamas and dressing gown – and when the lights come up, he treats his audience to one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever witnessed. In his hands he holds a deck of sixty black-and-white cards, each with a picture and details of a man who perished in World War One. He, Sandy, is the only survivor. And then – with a mind-blowing piece of mind-reading magic – he demonstrates his skill as “the mentalist to the King”.
It’s a stunning trick to begin with, and being up so close and personal made it even more impressive to watch. Though possessing very little, everything Sandy owns has a story: he even shares his memories of meeting the Great Houdini. But most precious of all is his small tin containing memorabilia from the War, including a playing card, a wooden cross and a soldier’s dog tag. Each object represents one of his closest comrades, and each of them has its own dramatic story to tell.
Sandy is now in a care home, and the audience witness the developing relationship between him and his new carer, Tony. Tony has secrets to keep – but Sandy, the mentalist, can see right into his troubled mind. Jamie Rodden, as Tony, maintains his part well, with an underlying menace and unpleasantness always about him. The tension between the two actors is at times electric.
Playing Sandy, Chris Begg is a sublime storyteller, moving effortlessly from episode to episode. His charismatic and convincing performance took me with him, all the way back to the terrors of the war. His passion is apparent in every movement and every word, and his portrayal of events is vivid enough that you experience with him every emotion he feels; I was enraptured by his stories of the 'Dead Man's Hand', a good luck cross, and a vision of the Angel.
Playwright Annie James has done an excellent job, and every line translates well to this intimate theatre space. But there is one disappointment: the ending is a little predictable, a series of events I saw coming long before they actually unfolded. I was also a little puzzled as to why certain props remained unused, especially as they were of key importance in the story. Being so close to the actors, the authenticity of the performance – the “magic of theatre” – sometimes failed.
Nevertheless, this is a fine piece of writing and well acted throughout. The title for the play implies a memorial to the dead, and playwright James certainly achieves that. There is a line that Begg recites more than once: “Things that seem great at the time, are perhaps not so great after all.” When it comes to this production, that’s not true at all: it was great at the time, and I will remember it as one of the highlights of my Fringe this year.