TEA WITH MAMGU a White Desert Production at The London Welsh Centre April 2013
The stage is piled with boxes marked CLOTHES, CROCKERY, BOOKS. Clearly someone is moving. That someone turns out to be Jinny; her grandson Dylan is moving her out of her home, and into A Home. It quickly becomes clear that Jinny’s memory isn’t quite what it was. Where she is, what she is doing, who Dylan is; none of those things are clear. But Dylan, who spent much of his childhood having tea with his Mamgu, loves her dearly, and when she later absconds from the home he sets out on a desperate search for the confused old lady. Jinny has headed off on a trip down memory lane, and we live through it with her as she chats, laughs and eats biscuits with her friends Cynthia and Sheri as girls, women and old ladies.
Tea With Mamgu – pronounced Mamgi, as I found out – is at The Welsh Centre for one last hurrah before the ladies and gentleman head out on a national tour. I wondered how a play that was evidently so quintessentially Welsh would fare out of its comfort zone, but as it turned out I needn’t have worried; the appeal of the three old ladies is universal and should travel well. I’m sure that, being English, I missed a couple of references and jokes – certainly there were some roars of laughter and thigh slapping from the rest of the audience which left me baffled – but overall it is a gentle, warm and inclusive production.
It is not exactly a comedy, as I expected it to be. There is humour certainly, but it is fairly basic and predictable, as though the writers had found the oldest joke-book in the world and pillaged it extensively. The real genius of the play was in the moments of pathos. The issue of dementia is a tricky one and it was handled delicately and respectfully, but there were some truly heart rending moments as you watched a life full of joyful memories trickling away from the person who lived it.
A lot of the credit must go to Elizabeth Hastings who was playing Jinny. For a young girl to play an old lady so convincingly is impressive, but to play an old lady with dementia and truly pull it off is a triumph. Her fear and confusion were palpable, and her irritation and fury when Dylan tried to set her straight on where and when she is was very real. All of the acting was superb in fact. Chris Walters is endearing as both of the Dylans, the first being Jinny’s late husband. Cery Wyn is very enjoyable as Cynthia, the rather more refined element of the little trio of friends, who finds herself in an unexpected and tricky predicament. And Emily Wilden is masterful and very comic as Sheri, the outspoken, no-nonsense trade unionist. The interaction between the three friends was natural and lovely to watch. As they pour the tea and pass the biscuits, constantly interrupting and talking over each other, criticising and consoling, you really do believe that these ladies have known each other for ever. Some of the conversations maybe go on a little too long – I felt that twenty minutes could have easily been shaved off this play with nothing lost – but the charm of the scenes is undeniable.
One lady I spoke to said she wished the play had been rather more overtly political, but really I don’t think that is the point of Tea With Mamgu at all. Yes it is Welsh, and there are references to local politics, but overall it is about friendship, and about growing old with people you have known forever. It is a very human play that everyone can relate to on some level, and I think and hope that it will do very well on tour.
Review by Genni Trickett
Sunday 28th April 2013