It starts with an obituary.
And out of the tiny newspaper clipping rises up a fully formed woman who did not, as it happens, “die peacefully in her sleep”. From the smallest of news articles Alice Mary Cooper pieces back together the story of Elizabeth Mary Moncello who, before she became a 95 year old in a nursing home, had a life shaped by the sea waves.
We travel back with Elizabeth to her life on a remote island where her family and one other live mainly to take care of a lighthouse. The majority of the narrative is set here and so we spend most of the 50 minute performance in the world of a solitary child captivated each day by the animals that share the Australian coast with her, and by The Little Mermaid, who doesn’t live in those waters, but might as well for the amount of time the little girl spends reading about her.
What this means is that for a lot of what started as a story of an old lady, we are instead at the opposite end of the age spectrum in childhood. There’s a spoiler-filled Scotsman review out there that can tell you something crucial (or not) about this show. However, the information that article reveals is irrelevant to another facet of Waves. Because alongside telling the audience this specific story, what Cooper is also doing is reminding us that old people – fictional and otherwise – all had a life before they became frailer, greyer and less noticeable to others.
Along with the precocious Elizabeth dipping tentative toes in the water, there is the 95-year-old Liz sitting at a nursing home table with china cups of tea. Older people are frequently dismissed and patronised. The point about Cooper’s story is not whether it is true or not, but more that it could be true. Inventions, tragic deaths, travels to different time zones and the disruption of an international event by a girl – it all could be there in the memories and backstories of ‘Old Dears’ if only we stopped to ask.
Along with giving the character a past, Cooper also goes a little further and makes the old woman someone still capable of deciding how (not) to live. She makes her eccentric and clad in pink silk, but still steely in knowing what to do.
Like the woman she talks about, the particulars of Waves seem fairly ordinary. But there’s a pleasant neatness to its format and its self-contained shell belies the fact that there’s more to this one-woman show than originally thought.