The fear of getting older is something that many of us grapple with our entire lives. Milestone birthdays turn into worrisome days where we mourn the years we have lost instead of looking forward to those we have ahead; we spend money on products to hide or supposedly slow signs of the ageing process. But being old is not synonymous with being disabled, or being frail, or being unable to enjoy yourself. Inspector Sands and China Plate bring The Lounge to Soho Theatre, a show that ultimately reminds us about our perceptions of age, the elderly and the concept of “being old”.
The show speaks on a multitude of levels about the realities of the care home system, the lack of respect we place on our older relatives anymore and the need to do more to engage, communicate and relate to these experienced, wise individuals with incredible lives that we should learn from. All in a setting that is humorous, at times awkwardly so.
I caught up with actor Dennis Herdman and two of the artistic directors for Inspector Sands, Lucinka Eisler and Giulia Innocenti, to see how the show was progressing and the reaction to the subject matter so far:
Two weeks in, two weeks left – how has the run gone so far?
Giulia: It’s going well, the feeling is good. Audiences are generally always engaged and chatty – people have a lot to say about the subject. It feels like it’s landing with a much younger audience that are more familiar with the Soho Theatre scene.
Lucinka: We were curious about that – we’ve always made work that has attracted younger people to an extent, possibly because of the comedy offering. But in Edinburgh we had a lot of audience members in the 60s and 70s clearly drawn by the subject matter, so we were really curious how it would play in Soho where there’s a combination of both.
It’s definitely a dark comedy – was it intentional to make a work that had light-hearted elements while dealing with a serious issue?
Lucinka: We’ve always approached whatever we’ve been making work about with some sense of humour, partly because it’s more fun to watch. We didn’t set out wanting to make an “issue play”, we wanted to make a show about something that mattered to us and interested us. Now that we’ve made it we feel like the comedy is really important to talk about this stuff, otherwise it’s just too depressing.
Dennis: One element feeds the other – you get interested in something because you laugh or because you’re moved by it. But if you have the audience’s attention then you can go where you want.
In an individual show, do you find that you lean towards comedy or serious depending on the audience reaction?
Giulia: Interestingly I have the opposite feeling. When you feel like the audience are hooked and you’re getting laughs, it’s possible to pull back and be even more low key with it. That’s exciting because you think “Now I’m going to hit you with something much slower.” The audience are laughing at something that at times is quite painful and awful, so it’s interesting to find where the laughter becomes a bit uncomfortable – funny but also tragic.
Lucinka: We have to hold our nerve a bit in the show and not try to read too much into the audience response. Sometimes an audience has a really coherent chemistry and other times people react in much more individual ways. We bear in mind the rhythm of the whole show to hold it all together.
It’s quite a physical show – characters rushing on and off and around the set. Is there every a worry of…
Dennis: Falling over!
Giulia: There was a big sphere of mash potato in the wings that I was worried you would slip on after this performance!
Dennis: It’s a very intricate, delicate show with lots of different objects and running around. There’s always the potential for slip-ups, so it’s useful to be ready for these things. I knocked over Giulia’s spray earlier on in the show, that’s why it didn’t work properly. Giulia, you dropped a load of cups the other day – those things happen, but it’s ok as long as we don’t pull the set over.
Sometimes you can use that kind of thing as well. By the end of the show there’s chaos and debris all over the stage, which can be quite pleasing to see especially when it starts so spick and span and in order.
How do you find as actors having to switch so quickly between the different parts – sometimes you have seconds between changes, other times you swich while on stage?
Giulia: It’s something I don’t think about, even in rehearsals. It’s a necessity – there’s an impulse, a need to become the other character. What sometimes is tricky is maintaining the through-lines for the different characters at the same time; even if you’re playing three characters they are all going through different things and are in different states through the piece. But you as a performer are going as through one continuous journey – more than the physical transformations it’s dropping in and out meaningfully that is the trickiest of all.
Dennis: In this particular incarnation of the show we had a very short rehearsal process. Just through doing it over and over again, I became more fluent in switching character and telling the story. In a way, I feel that I’m connecting more with what we’re doing when we’re off stage, what we’re looking at and who we are.
Giulia: The feeling of fluidity is interesting, in moments when you swap character you get a feeling of one character in the body of another. At the end for example, when Valentina [the care worker] becomes Clara [one of the elderly residents], it’s a practical thing but there’s a sense of moving into this character and switching off the previous. The bleed between the two is relaxing.
What is the hope for the future for the show?
Lucinka: For me it would be anything where a lot of people got to see it. Just that. We would like it to have a reach and a diverse one, that would be the most important thing.
Giulia: A tour of Australia too maybe!
The Lounge plays Soho Theatre until 20 May.