Presented by Northumbria University in association with Live Theatre
Starring: Chris Connel, Laura Norton, Peter Peverly, Helen Embleton and Jess Johnson
Directed by: Steve Gilroy
A neighbour sometimes came to our door and he would forget what he knocked for. He often wandered the street forgetting where he was supposed to be going, looking confused and upset. These are possibly the only aspects of dementia I have seen for myself. And yet there was so much more to this friendly neighbour than his occasional appearance on our door step. How did his wife cope? Did they still laugh together? Did he ever find himself in danger when crossing the road? Had he ever left a pan boiling? Did his family still visit? Did friends still call by? Did he still go to the pub for a pint or for walks at the coast? I never really considered these things.
Even though I have very little experience of the subject, I find that I often avoid films or TV programmes that depict dementia. I still haven’t watched Still Alice even though I hear it’s a fantastic film, and I find it tough watching Ashley’s story in Emmerdale and will often grab the remote if it becomes a bit too much. But I had to watch this show – my husband and friend were part of the cast. No excuse to hide away from the topic this time.
Each Piece is verbatim theatre, something that director, Steve Gilroy, has tonnes of experience in. If you’ve not come across it, it’s a style of documentary theatre using recordings of real people discussing their experience of the topic in question. Steve’s tackled some pretty tough subjects in the past – notably his 2015 US show, The Oklahoma Bombing Project, and Motherland – an award-winning piece based on the experiences of women whose lives have been touched by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s safe to say he doesn’t shy away from bringing the truth – no matter how uncompromising – to theatre audiences.
And I’m glad he does. Because verbatim theatre does not allow you to turn a blind eye – it lays the subject bare. It opens our eyes to what’s really going on in the world around us.
On Friday night I met many people whose lives had been touched by various forms of dementia. Their stories were brought to life by an outstanding cast. I can say that even though said husband (Chris Connel) and said friend (Laura Norton) were part of it – because, fact is, they are outstanding. No argument.
So what do we know about dementia? If we haven’t personally been affected, we might know something of the symptoms. And we might have seen members of our community, like my neighbour, often appear to be confused. But you only need scratch the surface of this complex illness to see how much more there is to it. Perhaps we are too frightened to delve any deeper…perhaps we avoid it.
This production, however, did delve deeper. It focused on relationships and how individuals and their families cope with the increasingly cruel symptoms of dementia as it continues to take away ‘each piece’ of the person they are or know and love.
But it’s tragic and upsetting precisely because of how much love, courage and humour we see on the stage. There has to be love in order to feel loss. And so we are introduced to that as well – to the relationships, the familiarity, the quirks and annoyances, the routine and then lack of routine, and to the hopes and dreams that once were.
Verbatim theatre does something that other forms of theatre cannot. It brings an authenticity to the dialogue – because it is authentic dialogue. And I think this is why Steve pulled together such an experienced cast – as recreating these scenes and responding to one another as genuinely as they did must take some serious skill and empathy. I was so drawn into it that I kept asking Chris if he was OK afterwards. He and Laura ended the play with a seriously touching scene showing the impact of early-onset dementia. Tears rolled. On stage too. Which is why Chris had to remind me that he was just doing ‘the acting’. Even so, it’s safe to say he was incredibly moved by what he heard during the project. I look back now and remember it was after his first day of rehearsals that he hugged me tight and said we must keep on making memories and live each day to the full. He has a good point.
One of the couple’s whose stories were shared (Ivor and Valerie Bird, portrayed brilliantly by actors Jess Johnson and Pete Peverly) actually joined the director for a post-show talk back. They didn’t leave us feeling uncomfortable, awkward or upset. They reminded us that love and humour and strength are qualities that, while they might not protect us from life’s challenges, they definitely make life worth living – no matter what we get hit with along the way.