Friday, 19 April 2019

Review: Visitors (Oldham Coliseum Theatre)

Thursday 18th April 2019
Oldham Coliseum

On Thursday, I was at the press night of Visitors at Oldham Coliseum, for North Manchester FM. You can hear my (slightly shorter) review of the play on Tuesday’s episode of A Helping of History, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Visitors is a new production of Barney Norris’s 2014 play by Oldham Coliseum Theatre. It’s a tender, moving and often very funny story about growing old. On a single set – the living room of an old, remote farmhouse – the play’s four characters sit, chat, drink tea, and face (or sometimes try to avoid) the challenges of dealing with dementia.

At the play’s heart are Edie and Arthur, a long-married couple who’ve spent their life in a cosy farmhouse together. Arthur still works the land, though he’s now struggling with the physical nature of the job and the prospect of having no one to take over once he’s unable to carry on. Edie is facing the onset of dementia – an illness that afflicted her mother – and the possibility of having to go into a care facility. While the couple are constantly forced to think about the future, they also reflect on the past (a result, in part, of Edie’s memory problems), and of the happy life they have shared.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

As well as Arthur and Edie, we meet their son Stephen, an insurance salesman who moved out of the farm as soon as he was able. Initially, Stephen seems rather brash and uncaring – keen to arrange professional care for his mother, and uncomfortable in his father’s company – but as the play unfolds we discover more about his character and what lies beneath the surface. The play’s fourth character is Kate, a blue-haired young girl who is taking part in a house-share programme (she stays at the farm rent-free, in return for helping Edie and Arthur with various chores). Like Stephen, Kate is a character who develops as the story unfolds: she begins as a something of a stereotype, a flaky young millennial hoping to ‘find herself’ by flitting from one thing to the next, but something deeper and more moving emerges as we learn more about her and see her relationship with the older couple blossom.

The treatment of dementia here is unusual – and that’s no bad thing at all. The play does make some comment on the illness’s inevitable and incurable progression, and there are some references to both physical and mental decline, this is not the central subject of the story. Visitors is a play about a person, not about an illness. Or rather, it’s a play about people. Arthur and Edie are a closely entwined couple with a shared past. Stephen is struggling to cope with the mess of the present-day. And Kate is unable – despite being told by others that she has ‘everything ahead of her’ – to imagine what shape her future will take.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

The subject matter of Visitors might sound fairly hard-hitting – depressing, even. But it’s really not that sort of play. Nor is it mawkish or sentimental. Norris’s excellent writing gives a story that is gentle, believable and sympathetic, without veering into maudlin clichés. It is, above all, a human story, which celebrates life (and love) in all its troublesome complexity. Interestingly, given that this is a play essentially about a woman’s decline after the onset of dementia, Visitors isn’t really a tear-jerker (though I will admit to welling up at the final dialogue). Instead, it’s marked by understatement, humour and a sense of authenticity that’s thoroughly engaging – and also rather heart-warming.

While much of this can be put down to Norris’s perfectly-pitched script, a lot of the charm comes from the performances. Kitty Douglas makes a great Kate, beautifully balancing the blue-haired cockiness of youth with fragility, uncertainty and even fear over the future. Ben Porter plays Stephen, and manages the difficult task of getting the audience on side with a character who – at first appearance – is set up to be the villain of the piece (of course, the play is more subtle than that). Arthur is played by Robin Herford, who gives us a moving and likable portrayal of a man unsure of what to do next, and – a product of his generation – unable to vocalize his fears and concerns.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Undoubtedly, though, the star of the show is Liz Crowther, whose performance as Edie is just excellent. Along with Norris’s writing, Crowther’s performance gives us a rare thing: a character with dementia who remains a character throughout. Edie’s memory losses and physical decline are presented with a light touch, allowing us to engage with the character as a human being throughout. Much of the play’s humour comes from Edie – from her wit and personality, not her diagnosis – and this is pleasantly surprising. And Crowther’s comic timing is spot-on.

Visitors isn’t exactly what you’d call an action-packed play. As I’ve said, the story unfolds on a single set (though expertly designed and detailed by Sammy Dowson), with an occasionally changing backdrop and minimal movement of props and costume. Nevertheless, Chris Lawson’s direction makes full use of this stage setting. Although all the ‘action’ takes place in a single room, the placing of characters around the stage at different points reveals the various separations and intimacies between them. Centre-stage is Edie’s comfortable old chair, around which the family (including Edie herself) moves.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

I’ll admit that Visitors confounded my expectations. While I knew I was going to see a ‘slice of life’ drama, I had expected the emotiveness of the subject to overwhelm. It really is rare to see a story about dementia presented with such a light touch and so little mawkishness. The adjective ‘tender’ seems to the most common descriptor used in reviews, and I think this is fair. ‘Warm’ also feels like an apt adjective.

Overall, Visitors is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. Superb writing, excellent performances (especially from Crowther), and careful and sympathetic treatment of an emotive subject – I highly recommend it.

Visitors is on at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 4th May.

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