Joan and Harold are their names. They’re proud octogenarians and still as sprightly as they were when I was a child.
As I take in what, on the face of it, is the rather bemusing sight of a stage full of singing American pensioners otherwise known as the Young@Heart Chorus, I swell with the same kind of admiration I have for my kindly neighbours.
Like many of the shows at this year’s Manchester International Festival, the story behind this performance is as moving as the performance itself.
Formed in 1982 in Northampton, Massachusetts, the idea behind Young@Heart has always been double-edged. Consisting of performers that (currently) range in age from 73 to 89, Young@Heart offers senior citizens the opportunity to perform on stages around the world. Some have prior professional or amateur experience; some have never set foot on stage before the age of 80.
But Young@Heart isn’t just about offering elderly people an opportunity to be young again. Quite the reverse, in fact; after tonight’s show it is the younger folk among this audience that are supposed to be the true beneficiaries. Tonight’s performance, entitled End Of The Road, tackles the subject of mortality. An utterly depressing night, then? Far from it.
The set, arranged by Massachusetts-based production team No Theater, looks as though it has been lifted from Stanley Kubrick’s vision of A Clockwork Orange. A strange pyramid-shaped edifice stands to one side of the stage. To the other, stands a slightly incongruous bar. Everything is white. I’m waiting for Alex and his droogs to enter the stage and indulge in some copious milk-swilling.
Instead, the stage is slowly occupied by a troupe of elderly ladies and gentlemen, all in splendid dress. Some of the men look like gangsters from prohibition-era United States; some of the women are dressed to the nines in ball gowns and other such fancy garb.
The show isn’t a complicated affair. The cast sings classic songs both contemporary and old, almost without interruption. A small supporting band accompanies and occasionally rallies the troupe from the left of stage. But that’s not really the point of the show.
Initially, the first few numbers draw the odd snigger from the crowd. That’s fair enough, though. The show’s semi-improvised nature, particularly during the first half, gives things a slightly farcical, childlike tone. But everyone is having fun and the crowd is clearly laughing with its new friends, rather than at them. And it’s then that I’m reminded of the observation that people playfully revert back to childhood in their later years. How very true that seems!
Things get a little more sober for the second half of the show. The cast, now all donning white gowns with hoods, are carefully arranged within the pyramid structure in height order as though they are assembling for a school photograph. The light dims, and the night takes on a far more reflective mood. Some would even go as far as saying things just got a little bit god-fearing. Whatever the spiritual undertone, it isn’t long before this packed audience at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music begins to understand what this show’s shtick really is.
End Of The Road‘s magic lies in its simplicity. It works on two principal levels: appreciation of life and fear of death. As this elderly troupe of loveable misfits celebrates music with all the vigour of people half their age, a stunned audience sits and contemplates, what is, a curious contradiction. Intertwined with this contradiction is the poignancy of what is being witnessed. Life has given this youthful band another chance, perhaps one last fleeting chance, to lend what they’ve experienced to music often heard in a quite different context.
Songs of love and companionship and loss and loneliness are a lot more potent when they are sung with such sympathy and understanding and in the face of whatever is next for this gentle chorus. An appreciation of life meets the fear of death.
It’s a juxtaposition that is by turns heartrending and beautiful and that, by the end of the night, binds an unlikely cast to a fully appreciative audience. As this venerable cast gingerly takes it final bows, I can’t help but think of my dear neighbours. Joan and Harold would be proud of this lot too.