Dementia is an issue which always merits dramatic examination because, let’s face it, we’re all getting older, it’s getting bigger, and it’s probably going to see most of us off if we’re lucky enough to live that long. Having witnessed the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous vascular dementia over a period of nine years, and her brother before her, I know this is a very personal and very tricky problem – and there’s really no right or wrong way to deal with it apart from ensuring they get the best possible care you can offer. But parents can be very difficult, can’t they? No matter the good times you shared, how they looked after you, how they even risked their lives for you, they can become a nuisance at times. Danny DeVito’s bright idea was to Throw Momma From The Train, but Mommas have a habit of bouncing back.
Blue Shift Theatre’s Deciding What to do with Dad considers the plight of three brothers whose father has succumbed to dementia. But if you’re expecting a po-faced, searing exploration of the nature of dementia, or even worse, looking for advice as to how to help look after a parent with dementia, you’ve come to the wrong place. This brilliant, subversive, fast-paced surreal comedy breaks all the rules with its proposed solution to the brothers’ problem, whilst still twinging at the heartstrings in its emotional moments; I confess, when the brothers were reading aloud their father’s wishes that he had written when he was still compos mentis, I experienced that strange wetness in the eye that can sometimes take you by surprise.
The three brothers are beautifully characterised. Charlie, the youngest and most sensible, takes a practical approach; Ryan, the returning prodigal, takes a traditional approach; Archie, the weird one, takes a weird approach. The structure of the show enables the cast to break the fourth wall on an almost continuous basis, which gives it both flexibility and a dangerous edge; it creates a delicious bond with the audience, so we know we’re not only watching three awkwardly matched brothers taking the rise out of each other (as brothers do), but also three likeable young actors creating some theatrical magic apparently on the hoof (although I’m sure it’s very well prepared).
It would be invidious to pick out the individual performance of any one of Jac Burbidge, Jake Statham or Hal Gallagher because they gelled together so well to create a really convincing ensemble. But I did like Mr Burbidge’s song, which starts with quirky humour but ends with true pathos; Mr Statham’s energy and enthusiasm in the flashbacks, whilst keeping one foot in the door of reality; and Mr Gallagher’s dour, self-pitying daft sod of a clown – I really loved his phone call with an 8 year old client.
It reminded me a little of Peter Nichols’ Day in the Death of Joe Egg, where the parents of a severely disabled child manage to survive everyday life by turning their whole existence into pastiche and pantomime. Creating subversive, ridiculous humour as a way of coming to terms with dementia strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Having seen a few Flash Festival plays over the last three years I’m definitely of the opinion that it’s much harder successfully to carry off comedy in this format than it is tragedy; but these guys made it look easy. I loved this production – I’m only sorry I won’t have time to see it again. Congratulations guys, you did an amazing job. You could take this play, give it a little tightening here and there, add a couple more ideas plus say ten more minutes, and it would be a smash at Edinburgh.