Penny Productions is a new company whose aim is “to explore different types of performance” and they claim to take inspiration from Dario Fo and Steven Berkoff amongst others. This piece focusses on the experience of a family facing up to the early signs of dementia shown by the mother, Etta. In reacting to her increasingly confused behaviour, the other members of the family reveal patterns of relationships that clearly come from earlier and happier times. This situation is one that some members of the audience will have already experienced as the incidence of forms of dementia, most commonly Alzheimers, becomes more prevalent. So the varied audience reaction to this inventive but flawed production will be partly influenced by personal experiences.
The play is in two episodes, both portraying separate pre-Christmas visits by the younger daughter Clara and her boyfriend Alexander. Etta and her long-suffering husband Joe do their best to welcome Clara and Alexander but Etta’s confusion leads to increasingly difficult moments and, in the end, to an angry and heart-rending confrontation between Clara and the older daughter Lilly who has stayed in the family home to care for her mother and support her father. For many of those of us who have had to face up to dementia in the family, this and similar dilemmas will be only too familiar.
The “big idea” of the production is that the drama constantly switches between naturalism – sections where the actors portray the events of the two tea parties in realistic ways – and a strange surreal twilight world where the actors use mime and slapstick to show events from the past or to illuminate what is going on in their minds. Some of these episodes – played in much lower lighting – are very funny and help to reveal to us the tensions tormenting family members.
In the central role of Etta, Rachel Dobell is totally convincing as a woman desperately trying to hang on to the certainties of her old life. She worries about the niceties of the tea party and tries to play the good host … but her crumbling short-term memory leads her into regular mistakes that thwart her desire to “do things properly”. She asks her family for their preferences for tea or coffee and brings back the wrong selection – which provokes a very funny “twilight” sequence in which they all swap their mugs in the hope of getting the drink they have asked for. The warring daughters Lilly and Clara are well drawn by Ruth Sanders and Rochelle Thomas – Lilly’s speech explaining how much she has sacrificed to stay at home with her parents provides the dramatic heart of the play. Jon Gilmartin and Oliver Gully offer less well drawn portraits of Joe and Alexander.
It’s a fascinating evening and offers glimpses of what the company might become, but the performance is raw and uneven at the moment. There are moments when the drama seems to run out of steam and there are sections of dialogue that are stilted and unconvincing. It would be interesting to learn more – perhaps from better programme notes – about the creative process that this group is developing but this performance looks like work in progress.