Directed by Sally Ransom
Dates 20th to 24th March 2018
“Look at those little lifelines etched into the palms of your hands, everyone has a great story in them. Wring it out of your heart and squeeze it through your fingertips onto the paper.”
Bothered and Bewildered by Gail Young is a comic drama following Irene and her daughters coming to terms with her Alzheimer’s. As they lose their Mum in spirit but not in body, Irene’s past passion for romantic fiction blurs with reality and with the help of her unseen and witty companion the late Barbara Cartland, she writes her memory book, sharing the secrets she never revealed to her daughters.
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.
Lynne Foster as Irene, the Mother and Alzheimer sufferer, captured perfectly her fear, confusion and in some instances the simple pleasure of not knowing what pain your family are experiencing while you are living in your version of the world. I felt her anxiety, particularly when reliving her past with her adopted son and secret love. This was a captivating performance.
Irene’s daughters played by Rachel Curren as Louise and Stephanie Yorke-Edwards as Beth gave quite contrasting performances with their different viewpoints on their mother’s situation which really added to the overall story.
Stephanie gave the appearance of being the tougher of the two sisters but when the dam did eventually break we felt her distress at the loss of her mother to this cruel disease. This was a very real and true to life performance. Rachel as Louise, who is faced with having her mother move in to “the terrible hotel” showed us the child within the adult, longing to have her mother and father back and struggling to cope with the situation she finds herself in. Rachel is an amazing actress who is capable of peeling back so many layers of a character in the simplest ways. Both were moving performances.
Barbara Llewellyn as Barbara Cartland gave a dignified and humorous performance bringing so much light relief to what could be otherwise quite a traumatic evening in the theatre. She has great stage presence and gave a very confident delivery – I thoroughly enjoyed her portrayal.
Terry Cramphorn has great a calming presence in his delivery and throughout this production he gave just the right level of ‘normality’ to contrast against all the emotions on display. The younger cast members tried hard in their different characterisations within the play, unfortunately Sh’i’na McNaught I felt, didn’t quite get under the skin of the character Shelley – she felt a little too shallow in her portrayal of emotion keeping it at a surface level rather than embracing the full depth of feelings that could have been explored but this is possibly down to her age and not having the breadth of experiences to draw on. By contrast, Alexander Bloom as James brought a lump to my throat both in his delivery on the doorstep with his potential birth mother and lastly with the letter.
This play is a dramatic and emotional piece but it has just the right amount of humour in it to make it a very special piece of theatre. I really encourage people to see this as I honestly believe it will resound with you on so many levels and is so well executed that it will be a true shame if more people don’t see what is probably an unknown and an unrecognised play delivered exceptionally well.