Urusla Martinez’ A family outing- 20 years later, playing at the Barbican’s Pitt and part of the Barbican’s 2019 Life Rewired season, is a hilarious but at the same time achingly queasy making beast, not only because it is about ageing and dying but because of the discolours it makes about that most private of our boxes – our family lives. Martinez rushes on the stage, jokes aplenty. The tone is set. This is like cabaret, without the sex. We know what to expect. From a carrier bag she throws items of rubbish on the floor, then with the aid of an audience member, carries on a sofa to hide the filth. We laugh. This is a pre-Marie Kondo world. She goes to fetch her mother who is a puppet and then brings on her real mother, who is frail but as it soon becomes clear, not as frail as first appears. The countering of expectations is both poignant and funny.
The original show played here twenty years ago and Martinez runs a recording of that earlier show in the background of this. Like the better kind of installation art, the double view is fascinating, not only because Martinez uses a mirror technique, synchronising her actions to the actions of her younger self on screen, but also because of what has changed. Since that production, her father has died. It is now just her mother ( Milagros Lea) and her on the stage. The pathos is that her father is dead and her mother, who is eighty-two, has dementia. And yet, her mother remembers all her lines and as in the lovely solo dance sequence of ‘I will survive,’ all her dance moves as well. ‘Her medication must,’ said the friend I went with , ‘be working.’ What is equally fascinating is how Martinez’s body has changed. In the earlier video she is conscious of her beauty: legs curl, bend, knock together as if she is still a girl. In the present production her body, despite her jokes about lack of bladder control, is still fit. But the way she holds it is floppy, as if it had always been made to sink into a couch.
The strains running through this piece are: loss – of life and memory; surviving, or just getting on with what’s got to be got on with; family, and the question Martines raises again and again: I’m looking after my mother, but who’s going to look after me? Both she and her sister, who we see briefly via a ‘live’ Face Time call, don’t have any children, so their family line stops with them. The idea that everything ends with us is hard; perhaps harder still is the idea that our ends will be isolated, bereft of care and love. Martinez stares into the cavern of her future and we feel her fear. She faces it with a throwing back of her head and a laugh. She mocks us, the punters, herself, her sister, time, but never her parents who, if appearances are anything, she clearly loves. Her mother, Milagros Lea’s humour is of a gentler kind than her daughter’s, though she too has her own steel, as when she quotes Bette Davies: ‘Growing old is not for sissies.’ The show abounds in mortality tales but it is from the start very very funny. The humour is mostly verbal; the warmth of the relationship between mother and daughter is most powerfully evinced when, bodies entwined, they recite Spanish poetry together. This balance, between darkness and light, is deftly created by Martinez’ and Lea’s performance and Mark Whitelaw’s lightly reined direction.
The show reminds one, if one needs reminding, of the fragility of life and of relationships. After the show I overhear a group of millennials say some versions of ‘I must call my grandmother.’ Note to myself: be kinder.