This event – which consists of four short plays, with linking spoken word, videos and artworks – grew out of preparations for an event in Dementia Awareness Week in 2018. The core of the work is the plays which were written after participation by members of the Collective, and the playwrights, in groups for older people and their carers across south London. They present a range of portrayals of the lives and memories of older people and they focus as much on loss and loneliness as on dementia. But they also dwell on the fun and fulfilment that older people experience whatever the challenges that they face …. and the final play London Bus is a joyful recreation of an imaginary detour by a
number 50 bus all the way to Brighton and back. There is lots of music including
some great singalong stuff and the end result is an evening that challenges us
to re-examine our views about age and memory.
This is so-called immersive theatre and the action takes place in a range of locations in the Old Vic Workrooms in Bermondsey. We are welcomed by Stuart Turner as a rather sinister master of ceremonies. He conducts us to the bar where we begin with an eclectic set of songs sung by Jo Wickham and Thomas Judd – Dock of the Bay followed by Tie a Yellow Ribbon! We are then led through two rooms with our MC delivering brief lectures about the hippocampus and the amygdala and then to the first play Frames which focusses on the randomness of memory and the way that it alters as the brain ages. We then dance along a corridor to a room where we watch a long-ago scene where Les (Robert Hickson) tries to persuade a shy Dawn (Maggie Daniels) to learn a dance to do at their wedding. Then we see them many years later as a determined Dawn finds a way to tempt Les out of his depressive lethargy. This piece I Could Have Danced All Night is a bit like a scene from a soap opera and really pulls the heartstrings as the spark between the two is rekindled by memories of past joy.
Daniels and Hickson, both of whom give quiet but powerful performances in all their roles, re-emerge in a different room in Topsoil which examines the experience of bereavement and life alone for the survivor. Both have experienced loss and they find a way to celebrate their future lives without minimising the sadness they must cope with. All this helps to give the final piece London Bus an extra charge of pleasure. This piece was devised out of some improvisations that took place at The Healthy Living Club in Stockwell and we see some videos from that gathering that give us a good idea of the celebratory nature of a club that clearly welcomes the fun that its members can get out of sharing memories of long-ago adventures. The driver (an ebullient Danielle Kassarate) and the conductor (Stuart Turner again) welcome a motley group of passengers as they decide that the bus won’t be stopping at Croydon but will be going all the way to the seaside at Brighton – and sing lots of old favourite songs along the way.
Though there is inevitably some focus on the sadness of losing faculties – and old friends – this is anything but a gloomy evening and it celebrates old age and the pleasures of memory and of remembered music in a joyful way. Director, and founder of the admirable Dot Collective, Laura Harling, makes the most of the spaces around the Old Vic Workrooms to provide fresh settings for each play – even the journeys between them are full of incident – and brings an infectious sense of fun to the whole show. There are apparently One Hundred Trillion synapses in the brain – hence the title – and while this event makes no claims to offer radical new ways to understand dementia, it asks each member of its audience to think about the changes that all of us are likely to experience sooner or later.