An insight into the degenerating mind of a former Scrabble champion, the premise of Blank Tiles certainly has the potential to be poignant – but also potential to be twee. Unfortunately in performance, it comes across as the latter to me.
Writer and performer Dylan Cole’s Blank Tiles focuses on Austin, a former World Scrabble Champion with Alzheimer’s symptoms that are escalating. Our protagonist once had an encyclopaedic knowledge of words; we’re told he used to have over 200,000 of them in his back pocket. Now though, he’s increasingly struggling to remember any – and instead, just about managing to jot single words down on post-it notes. Fragments of an increasingly invisible existence.
The premise – a dictionary connoisseur with a plethora (!) of synonyms at his disposal to describe any instance losing the ability to retain or relay memories – certainly has potential to be poignant. But also, if portrayed without quite enough subtlety or nuance – potential to be pretty twee. Unfortunately in performance, it came across as the latter to me.
Cole is charismatic but not entirely convincing as the eccentric board-game champ. Although he quickly establishes and sustains character quirks and mannerisms, they somewhat just don’t combine to create an entirely well-rounded or three-dimensional individual. The closest character I can compare Austin to is Curious Incident‘s Christopher: the pre-Alzheimer’s Austin seems to exhibit similar tendencies associated with Asperger’s syndrome as him – although this is not labelled or made explicit). Unlike Christopher though, who is written (and was consistently performed on stage) with a real warmth and humanity, I couldn’t help but feel fairly distanced and detached from Austin all the way through. He laughs at his own jokes just that little too much and too loudly, he alludes to his love for Justin Bieber (which, as an awkward adult male, could have been a relatively endearing character trait – but he doesn’t dwell or expand on it quite enough for you to care).
The rearranging of letters on the magnetic scrabble board is clever (Cole clearly likes anagrams as much as his character) but gets a little tiresome after a while. And the attempts at humour in the writing, of which there are many, rarely seem to be quite as funny as they are set up to be (and I don’t think you can just pin that on them being ‘tinged with sadness’).
It’s clear Blank Tiles is well-intentioned, and that ample thought has gone into the construction and background research of the piece – both of which should be commended. I just don’t think the writing or performance in its current form quite manages to pull off the truly thought-provoking or poignant exploration of Alzheimer’s that it perhaps thinks it is.