By Kate Larsen
Really Old, Like Forty Five is playing at the Cottesloe at the National Theatre, London until 20 April 2010. Written by Tamsin Oglesby and directed by Anna Mackmin, the play stars Judy Parfitt, Marcia Warren and Gawn Grainger
Britain is getting older. "Get used to it," says a man behind me.
But Tamsin Oglesby’s new play, ‘Really Old, Like 45’, isn’t a celebration of older age. It’s a satirical and thought-provoking piece about ageing and what life might become.
Lyn (Judy Parfitt) is having trouble with that “memory thing”. No longer able to live with her invalid sister, Alice (Marcia Warren), Lyn is shipped off to hospital.
In this not-too-distant future, older people are required to play an active part in society – being match-made with adopted ‘grandchildren’ to care for. If they can’t, hospitalisation and drug trials are mandatory and palliative care is carried out with someone else’s best interests in mind.
Lyn, Alice and their brother, Robbie (Gawn Grainger), are all ageing very differently: one with grace, one in denial, and one with complete obliviousness. Lyn’s deterioration is painfully well written: a heart-breaking reminder of the indiscriminate and cruel nature of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The play is topical and covers a lot of ground... The nature of self, the right to die, vulnerability, informed consent, justifiable risk, whether our economic and social systems will be able to cope with an aging society, and whether living older is indeed living better.
Assisted suicide has got a lot of press recently, and is covered here too: but discreetly, and by someone who has the full mental capacity to make the decision themselves. In this case, it is assisted by the systems available to make it happen, but still an autonomous choice. It skirts around the issue of ‘assisting’ someone to die who can’t speak up for themselves.
There are currently 700,000 people with dementia in the UK, with a financial cost of over £17 billion each year. With low birth rates, rising life expectancy, the recession, housing shortage and an overstretched NHS, many consider it a demographic time bomb.
The personal time bomb is bad enough. We watch as Lyn’s personality changes and starts to disappear: her anger, her fantasies, her distress and confusion. Long-ago griefs are altered and amplified, promises unknowingly broken. Gems of gift-like memories are balanced with awful moments of clarity, before sinking right back into unremembering.
This is a play of extremes, physically split over two levels, which eventually blur: when science, humanity and the balance of power become confused. A highlight from the science-side is Mimi (Michela Meazza), the purr-fect robot nurse, who opens up a whole, surreal range of possibilities for care. I want one.
Because I spend my days enmeshed in disability arts, politics and pride, dementia and Alzheimer’s are important issues to think about. More of us will acquire impairments related to age without necessarily identifying as disabled people. And many of us won’t know when our rights are being infringed.
For me, it’s too easy to imagine the face of my own grandmother on Lyn’s own. By the end, I am in tears, with a deeper, unwelcome understanding.
But while the play suggests a dark imagined future, using humour and exaggeration to make its grim point, it feels at times like a cop-out. Why invent solutions to imaginary problems when there are so many real issues that need answering right now? Like how family members (who save the UK over £6 billion each year) can afford to live on the paltry carer’s pension? Like how to support the increasing numbers of people who don’t have family support?
Like how to maintain dignity and autonomy when it seems impossible? Or how to make sense of the mess around assisted suicide and where it crosses over into euthanasia? The here-and-now is much more terrifying.
There are no happy endings here, and there aren’t any answers, inside or outside of the play. All of our endings are unexpected. And we never know when to say goodbye.
Really Old, Like 45 is on at the National Theatre until 20 April 2010.
Statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society