The house lights in the Old Court Theatre dimmed to reveal an animated image of a dandelion clock, dispersing into the winds of time. The scene was set for Chelmsford Theatre Workshop’s latest production ‘Bothered and Bewildered’. It was clear from the publicity and pre-show announcement that Gail Young’s play was about raising awareness and funds for the Alzheimer’s Society and the simple, stark opening backdrop left the audience in no doubt that this was going to be a poignant ride.
What struck me most forcibly, however, as Irene and her family gradually came to terms with her spiralling descent into the grips of dementia, was the extent to which this production ably lived up to its billing as a ‘comic drama’. I had been doubtful that, given the subject matter, there would be anything to laugh at here but throughout there were many reminders that light can be seen alongside the darkest of moments. Most notably, Irene’s violent refusal of her long-suffering daughter’s offer of spoon fed scrambled egg was heartbreaking and yet somehow mirrored her slapstick oneliner about her lost ‘sexual energy’ which followed. The presence, in Irene’s imagination, of her long-time idol, romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, clad in characteristic shocking pink, similarly provided some laugh out loud moments. The character of Barbara Cartland, played suitably haughtily by Barbara Llewellyn, provided the lynchpin for the whole piece, at once delivering comic lines in support of Irene as she faced up to the frustrating realities of her present and acting as the vessel by which she could express her deep, human feelings towards her eventful past.
Full credit has to go to Lynne Foster for her powerful, moving and endearing portrayal of Irene, as the one-time lover, wife and mother whose long-held secret is finally revealed as she becomes an increasingly helpless and unpredictable shadow of her former self. Rachel Curren and Stephanie Yorke-Edwards are believable too as the daughters struggling with the gradual loss of the mother they had always known. Evidence of either personal experience or thorough research is apparent in these performances. Clever casting sees Sh’i’na McNaught and Alexander Bloom both playing dual roles that help bring about the sense that for Irene, and in life in general, the echoes of the past stay with us even when we think they are lost. Completing the small but emotionally energetic cast is Terry Cramphorn, the solid voice of reason who as both consultant and policeman provides a shoulder to cry on for both Irene and her girls.
Lighting is used to dramatic effect in a desperate night-time hunt for a bewildered Irene and to highlight her daughters’ exasperated and futile calls to potential care homes as the inevitable future has to be faced. Sound effects and music too, combine with strong performances to allow the audience to glimpse the world as Irene increasingly sees it – the incessant doorbell, the repetitive knocking or is it a baby crying?, the haunting recurring tones of ‘Abide with me’.
It is evident that a lot of work and care has gone into the staging of this piece in order to bring the gravity of the subject matter home to the audience. To my mind, this has paid off and the performance will live long in my memory, a powerful reminder that in the theatre, as with life itself, tears and laughter go hand in hand.