Since opening in Auckland, New Zealand at the end of 2013, Vital Xposure’s latest production Let Me Stay has been touring the UK. Having won an Unlimited Award, Julie McNamara is set to stage the show she has written for and with her mum at the Southbank Centre in September. Bella Todd saw the one-woman show at The Albany, Deptford.
Even as Alzheimer’s erodes her past and scrambles her present, it’s fair to say that Julie McNamara’s mum has character to spare. A huge-hearted Liverpudlian with an appetite for song, sparkly shoes and mischief, she treats life as a party held in her honour, and authority with riotous irreverence. She is, we learn in a post-show Q&A, currently holding the music therapist’s tambourine hostage under her care-home bed.
Once left out in the wilderness with King Lear, dementia is now one of the hottest topics in theatre. Numerous new works, from Vanishing Point’s Tomorrow to Barney Norris’ Visitors, are informed by a disorder that currently affects 800,000 people in the UK and is set to affect double that figure in the next generation. Last autumn, a Devoted & Disgruntled roadshow at West Yorkshire Playhouse even asked whether we haven’t reached saturation point, suggesting the topic had become tediously trendy.
But what has still been missing, felt McNamara, is a positive narrative. Why should facing up to dementia have to involve framing it as the modern tragedy? Hence Let Me Stay, a one-woman show about her aging mother Shirley that plays, at surface level, more as a series of isolated comic skits than a drama of degeneration.
I don’t recall learning when Shirley got her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, or when she went to live in a home, or what her current care regime may be (though McNamara does, at one point, skewer health visitor discourse). But I won’t forget the image of her mistaking Birgit Dieker’s spiked black leather sculpture ‘Bad Mummy’ for a seat while accompanying her award-winning daughter to DaDaFest, or the pert nonsense poetry of her outraged menu misreading: ‘candlelit liver and jazz!’
There will be those who object to so funny a portrayal of dementia – one that isn’t merely admitting a slither of black humour, that is, but casting the disorder as an engine of garrulous social comedy. And McNamara makes sure to own the provocation, noting at one point, with a glint in her eye that mirrors her mother’s: “I swear she's enjoying this. This has become cultural. It's a lifestyle choice for her now”.
But of course it isn’t as simple as that. While McNamara inhabits her mother with irrepressible spirit, pressing hands with her cast and playing with her BSL interpreter, photographic slides and film of the real Shirley tell a parallel story in faint sepia. Projected onto Libby Watson’s inventively simple backdrop – an arc of white packing boxes stacked behind McNamara like a teetering memory bank – Caglar Kimyoncu’s visuals frame vivid dramatic presence with a dreamy kind of absence. “It’s like there’s a shift and she just goes blank”, McNamara says at one point, and there’s a subtle resonance with the show’s analogue technology: in the slow opening section, prior to McNamara’s entrance, we listen to Dream a Little Dream of Me (‘stars fading but I linger on dear…’) and watch patiently for the first series of photos to slide and load.
There are many issues at play here, and the post-show Q&A feels necessary to tease some of them out. Particularly striking is the complexity of McNamara and her mother’s relationship before Alzheimer’s came along. They have been ‘on shifting sands’, she says, ever since her childhood, when her mother was broken by grief following the death of her fourth child, and McNamara and her siblings had to be taken into care. Seen in this light, perhaps Let Me Stay isn’t so much a way to manage losing her mother as to reclaim her. Is this one family relationship that Alzheimer’s has actually simplified?
There are also many small and tremendously moving moments that need no context beyond the words ‘mother’ and ‘child’. McNamara’s memory of the day her mother came to collect her from school with a different hair colour taps into a universal need for our parents to stay the same. And you may glimpse a world of love in her mother’s brusque response when her daughter worries she has put on weight: “Can you still get in and out of my door? Then I don’t care!”
In the end, McNamara decides, “the only thing to do is join her”. She’s talking about the moments of surreal comedy that keep erupting as her mother, shed of inhibitions and social niceties, imagines friends and anticipates parties everywhere. But there’s a more bittersweet significance to the line as, in the closing moments, she sings along with her mother on video: a faltering, gently frustrated, heartbreakingly tender duet.
Let Me Stay is being performed at the Albany Theatre Deptford 26-28 June. Please click on this link for further details and here for a link to a promo video of the show