Described as A tender and unique exploration of the impact of Alzheimer's on family relations, Julie McNamara’s Let Me Stay evokes her mother's songs and stories to create a personal piece of theatrical storytelling. Cath Nichols saw the performance at the Bluecoats, Liverpool on12th March.
A theatre performance about Alzheimer’s is going to be a difficult piece to sell to an audience I would have thought. Controversially, pre-publicity for Let Me Stay suggested that Alzheimer’s might be ‘a lifestyle choice’. However, this was perhaps a misleading statement (and has been replaced by reviews on the website). I can reassure potential audiences that only when Julie’s mother Shirley has lost her ability to self-censor and comes out with outrageous comments in public, does Julie say, “I swear at some point she’s enjoying this” - which may be a familiar exasperation felt by other carers, and did not feel like a judgment.
The stage was a white circle with a backdrop of white cardboard boxes, a few showing pink insides. There was a pink swivel chair and some sparkly shoes: a set that was coded ‘feminine’ yet vaguely empty, making a change from the ‘black box’ of much solo theatrical work. To the left there was a smaller white circle.
The performance began when Karl Llorca took this spot to start BSL signing the song Dream a Little Dream of Me. The lyrics, including ‘Stars fading but I linger on, dear,’ were expressively adapted to sign and movement, vividly retaining the emotion of this and other songs. Most of the BSL was to the left of the stage but at times Karl roamed with Julie; a couple of times they interacted over a prop on the ‘main’ stage.
Julie entered in the guise of her mother and greeted the front row enthusiastically. Julie says that this is how her mother presents herself and that as she has aged so she will both give everyone plenty of attention, squeezing their cheeks, but also expect lots of attention.
The local street party for the Queen’s diamond jubilee is for her. Shirley is taken to an awards ceremony at the Hilton where she inspects all the waiting staff and then talks to a reporter about Julie: “Her father was a poet, you know.” “Was he? Was he published anywhere?” “…I don’t know! I’ve never met him.”
The stories enacted frequently showed the amusing impact on Julie; the potential for embarrassment, the conversations that ‘get stuck’ or lost. The moment when the social worker comes round changes this. We see that Shirley’s perception of reality has become detached from what is possible for her. Her ability to care for herself has ebbed away. She is losing weight. Her ability to feed (in fact over-feed) her dog has taken its place. At which point Gretel the dog, as embodied by Julie, makes an exuberant entrance.
Let Me Stay is a celebration of the life of Shirley McNamara. Some might say it glosses over the difficulties of living with a person with Alzheimer’s, especially where defensive confusion becomes aggressive, but an artwork can only be one person’s vision (or version), not everyone’s.
There were enough bitter-sweet moments from Julie and Shirley for the audience to ‘fill in the gaps’ and appreciate their relationship, particularly when we heard recordings of the two singing together. This performance stands as an engaging elegy-for-the-living that must surely stimulate conversation amongst any audience that engages with it.