In a play that asserts that older people still have much to offer, even when they have reached the stage of requiring round-the- clock care, it is more than a tad disappointing that two of the characters are merely called Old Lady (Giulia Innocenti) and Grandad (Dennis Herdman). At least the central character, Marsha Hewitt (Lucinka Eisler), is given a proper identity, one of those resourceful people with a streak of mischievousness that adds much gentle humour to a play set entirely in The Lounge of a care home.
The main problem with the management of the home is not, as some news stories and television documentaries have uncovered, abuse of patients. The facility is understaffed, so there is an element of benign neglect. It is difficult not to feel some empathy with 97-year- old Hewitt’s quiet cries of ‘Help!’ in the (ahem) dying moments of the play, but a lot of ground covered in the play as a whole has been done elsewhere. Many people will be familiar with the lesser degrees of agility and mobility that are part and parcel of the ageing process: I have noted that I am already unable to sit without emitting a little ‘Oomph!’ as I do so, for instance.
But given the amount of advice from biomedical professionals and other scientists in the development of the play, I would have liked to have seen more detail about the ageing process itself. There are two main opportunities in which the play could bring more of the background scientific knowledge available to the table. Or, rather, the lounge. One is in the form of Stefan (also Dennis Herdman), a new employee of the care home, who may have questions about the ever-increasing difficulties anyone who lives to a ripe old age encounter. Such queries could be answered by a more experienced member of staff, in layman’s terms, quite conversationally, with no need to bamboozle the audience with scientific terminology. The other opportunity comes when Mark comes to visit his Grandad: there is, as it goes, a hint of a discussion between Mark and a senior member of staff, though it is about the methods of modern-day patient management rather than the actual ageing process.
As the play stands, however, it’s largely a hoot with the audience, though there’s almost a Groundhog Day level of repetitiveness going on when someone struggles to their feet once more. Marks for consistency and the odd occasion when an elderly character suddenly seems to roll back the years can be easily forgiven by taking into account the multiple roles that are played between the cast of three.
This is also a play of relatively few words. Valentina (also Giulia Innocenti), a sort of matron (I don’t recall her given job title), is forever playing variations of ‘Twenty Questions’ with her patients to ascertain their needs at any given point. Certain elements in scenes come across as deliberate attempts to achieve maximum comic effect. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have reservations about that – goodness me, life is too short, which this play highlights. But there is a danger of lampooning the elderly in a production that encourages its audiences to be more respectful. It’s jarring, so I retain mixed feelings about the style of humour deployed.
The Blue Peter style tones of voice used towards the elderly patients spoke volumes about how some aspects of care home life remain outmoded. Even the use of the television has its parallels in bad parenting, where the goggle-box acts as a passive babysitter. At least Marsha Hewitt has the ability to disapprove of the unpalatable on TV.
But for some reason, the play suddenly goes into another dimension, both physically and metaphorically, and takes on a preachiness designed to guilt-trip (if I’ve understood correctly) younger people into setting aside more for their retirement. It’s an important issue, sure, but it’s really best dealt with in a play of its own. It’s frankly surplus to requirements here, and this one-act play could have finished a few minutes earlier than it did. That said, this is an honourable love letter to the elderly. As the prog-rock band Pulp sang in the late 1990s, “Help the aged, / ‘Cause one day you’ll be older too.”
Review by Chris Omaweng
97 years go by in a flash. An afternoon lasts an eternity
In a care home lounge somewhere off the A1, 97-year-old Marsha Hewitt begins the last day of her life. But she cannot go quietly. As the radiators burn and Jeremy Kyle blares, rivalries, relatives and murderous impulses jostle for space on the Axminster carpet.
By teatime, a riot is brewing.
The award-winning Inspector Sands (A High Street Odyssey, If That’s All There Is, Hysteria) and China Plate shine a spotlight on how we cope, or fail to cope, with ageing.
Supported by South Street Arts Centre & artsdepot. Funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, Arts Council England and The Sackler Trust.
Running Time: 80 mins
Age recommendation: 12 +
Tue 25 Apr – Sat 20 May 2017
Venue: Soho Theatre
21 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 3NE