Rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit.
It’s one of the things old people are known for, isn’t it, rabbiting on? So it makes sense, in a way, that a play created to be performed to audiences of older people and those living with dementia jumps and twitches between multiple characters and subplots.
I saw Paradise Lodge, a play about dementia, at the Chiswick Playhouse, ahead of a run which includes performances in local nursing homes and dementia day centres.
Paradise Lodge’s ‘Doodlebugs’ are a ukulele duo (‘Eric’ played by Steve Cooper,also the writer, and ‘Kylie’ – well, today she’s going by Kylie – played by Sophie Osborne), performing in the depressing titular nursing home, whose renditions of ’40s classics are disrupted by cracks in their own relationship, a storyline that is in turn interspersed with more naturalistic scenes showing the realities of dementia and of caring. This kind of meta-theatricality means the play works on various levels. The contrast between the professional over-cheeriness and the often grim realities of nursing homes pulls no punches. Indeed, fourth wall-breaking references to fictitious audience members having soiled themselves made me gasp, considering the real possibility of this happening in future performances. Dark. But as I discussed with Cooper after the show, elderly people are not stupid. Even with dementia, they are acutely aware of their own bodies. Who could not be? If you live in a nursing home that smells like boiled cabbage and human shit you know you live somewhere that smells like boiled cabbage and human shit, and no amount of sing-songs will make you forget that.
The hour-long show goes through the pressures and anxieties of caring for loved one with dementia, and the horrifying process of losing the inability to care for oneself. The show is saved from bleakness with moments of humour, songs, and real human connection.
And all of this is all very easy to write, but I have to confess to a slight failure at first to emotionally engage. I’m not sure if I am the right person to review this play, having no experience of ageing, older relatives or loved ones with any age-related disease. (One of the few benefits of having a genetic code that resembles a well-worn doggy chew toy is that your entire family tend to drop dead long before senility can become a problem. See? Warned you it was dark.)
But it started with a rabbit, and ended with something more profound. Proust’s famous Madelines gave rise to the concept of the Proustian rush, an object that instantly evokes a sense memory from the long past. Proustian rushes abound in the play; a holiday postcard, a song. For me it was a rabbit, run run running from the farmer with his gun. Such a silly, horrible little song. But suddenly I was transported to my mother’s knee, and I was in tears. Strange, the tricks our memories can play on us.
Wikipedia informs me that ‘Run Rabbit Run’ was – unfathomably – Churchill’s favourite song (he never got to hear Beyonce, though the Paradise Lodge audience do), and Churchill pops up here, too. It’s interesting that any form of nostalgia for or associated with elderly people (eld-stalgia? In Germany ‘olstagie’ sees communist artefacts of the DDR re-imagined as commodified remnants of an apparently simpler time) is based around WWII. Someone who was ten when the war started would be 90 today; the average OAP is more likely to be nostalgic for Elvis, not Vera Lynn.
But that’s memory for you.
Of course Kylie isn’t interested in any of this. Young and ambitious, her head full of dreams of West End stardom. Twining a subplot so completely about youth with the story (told in flashbacks) of Paradise Lodge patients as they struggle to comprehend – over and over again – that their loved ones are long dead, doesn’t fully work. There’s a lot of interesting potential to explore themes of identity and memory, but the comic metatheatricality of the play-within-a-play (in a nursing home, in a nursing home) isn’t quite as well-integrated with the beautifully poignant story of two older people as it could be.
But at that point I was still crying, lost to my own memories. My mother — my very recently deceased mother — wore a red headscarf wrapped to create two sticky up points like bunny ears, and her nickname was rabbit. Steve Cooper was inspired to write this play by his own experience of caring for his mother-in-law, and more than anything the play exists as a homage to her. And I guess in part I am writing this review as my own homage. People become lost to us in all sorts of ways, but they can live forever in memory.
And so the Doodlebugs will leave their audience, real and imagined. Eric will continue to be so painfully, ineffectually compassionate. Future Kylies will come and go, stars in their eyes. Audiences of people with dementia will see this play, and write their own reviews in their heads which we will never get to see, and they would probably be more interesting than mine. And my mother will run forever, because rabbits never get old.
Paradise Lodge runs at the Chiswick Playhouse until 24th October.