Sound and Music: David Wilson
Writer and Director: Tanya Myers
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
An emerald glow covers the stage. A forest of twigs and branches is projected over a hospital ward set. As the audience enters, pristine nurses bustle around the auditorium, their uniforms starched, hair pinned back. An elderly man, a little stooped, enters the stage and welcomes us to “the forest of subterfuge”.
“We’ll forget we’ve forgotten,” he tells us. “I am what others remember.” The forest melts away to reveal a dementia care ward receiving a new patient. A chirpy Health Care Assistant (HCA) is asking the patient’s husband to write a basic history of her life and what she likes doing, so it will not be forgotten. The gentleman who welcomed us is now shuffling around the edge of the set making a low, gravelly humming sound. The HCA explains that ‘Mr P’ never speaks, and others attempt to relate his history – “He was in the French Resistance” – “He shot his fiancée” – “No, the Nazis shot his fiancée”. The audience is left wondering how much of the man who opened the show remains in this Mr P who bangs into walls and stares unseeingly; how much does he know about who he is?
This sequence captures the agonising insight into the world of dementia portrayed by Meeting Ground Theatre Company’sInside Out of Mind. Based on findings from research commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research, Tanya Myers’ perceptive script is brought to life by slick staging and lighting design to explore a deeply frightening theme: dementia and its proximity to death.
The play follows ethnography student Youth Bailey (Rebecca D’Souza) as she undertakes a research placement on a dementia ward. Her first experiences are of a chaotic melee of movement and sound: a tea trolley thunders in and alarms the patients, who scream and clap their hands to their faces until nurses present them with pills; patients waltz by themselves to songs from their youth and every so often someone yells “All Change!” and the nurses race offstage to be replaced by the next shift of staff. The patients are trapped in the centre of this whirlpool of sensation, left in urine-soaked clothes while staff make cups of tea, or soothed and distracted by a relay team of different HCAs.
Amid these tragic, at times upsetting, scenes are moments of poignant beauty. Mr P presents a fellow patient, Gertie (Ulrike Johannson), with a white rose, and for that moment it is clear that in their minds, they are the only man and woman in the world. Robin Bowerman gives the stand-out performance as Mr P, managing to portray the intense confusion, loss, and hope in this man’s mind using only movement, expression, and fleeting images projected onto the hospital walls.
Some audience members do not return to their seats after the interval. It is too harrowing for them, perhaps. Yet the second half is as human and touching as the first half was discomfiting. The audience finds itself laughing with the nurses as residents shout roguishly, “You smell funny!” or “I want a biscuit!” The HCAs make Halloween hats with the patients, and talk directly to the audience about how much they care about their work, and the alcohol, anti-depressants and religion they turn to in order to cope with its emotional fallout. As Youth talks to both patients and staff, the play obliterates the negative image of HCAs it earlier created.
This production’s great strength is that the majority of actors play both dementia patients and their carers. Robin Simpson strides impatiently off the stage as the ward doctor, then returns minutes later hunched in a wheelchair as George, a pensioner with Pick’s Disease. The whole cast manages the quick changes (of both costume and character) this requires with effortless smoothness. The effect is arresting: it impresses on the audience how patients and HCAs are equally human. Anyone could, and many of us will, one day be a patient on a dementia ward like this. Inside Out of Mind will not be easily forgotten.
Runs until Friday 20th March | Photo: Alan Fletcher