Writer: Trevor T Smith
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
As we file in to the compact theatre in The Public, West Bromwich’s pink arts centre, we see Trevor T Smith, author and performer of An Evening With Dementia, seated in a pool of light in his dressing gown and slippers, knees covered with a crocheted blanket. His right hand has a continuous tremor, he peers out at the incoming audience, mouth open, tongue lolling: the very picture of confusion. We hear incoming audience members’ cheery chatter fall into mildly embarrassed whispers and then silence as they pass in front of him to go to their seats. The illusion of the infirm dementia sufferer is absolutely complete.
Smith’s nameless character – he possibly cannot remember his own name – invites us in to his world which is populated by strangers who ask trick questions like “What did you have for lunch today?” or take him away against his will to share Christmas Day with, presumably, relatives he doesn’t know from Adam. He shares his tricks to cover up his ignorance of what is going on around him, while having perfect recall of events from his wartime childhood and first marriage. His memory is his enemy as it fades and frustratingly lets him down. He frequently repeats himself without realising. He is able to reminisce at length about his former career as an actor and his apposite desire to play King Lear (which he can quote at length and believes he could do now, and mean it). In contrast, his descriptions of confusing visits from strangers, whom we infer to be members of his family and which leave him completely discombobulated, are extraordinarily poignant. At one point, against his own advice, he leaves his chair to move unsteadily among the audience, remaining there waiting for the play to start until, with a start, he recognises his chair and staggers back. The suspension of disbelief is so very strong that several audience members showed genuine concern for his safety during his hesitant movements. My companion, a professional who works with dementia sufferers every day, confirmed the uncanny accuracy of Smith’s portrayal.
An Evening With Dementia is a triumph. It uses no theatrical tricks with a set consisting solely of Smith’s chair, but nevertheless it is totally absorbing because of the quality and depth of Smith’s writing and performance. The whole works on many levels. For me, it was both entertaining and thought-provoking; for professionals, it is a supremely well-researched case study. It continues on tour for the rest of the year, including a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. If you can, see it.
Reviewed on 16 June 2012