Soho Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
Getting older is often confused with getting sicker, becoming frail and disabled or ending up confined to a vegetative-like state in an old people’s home. But there is still vitality in the later years of life – the personality, likes and dislikes of a human don’t disappear with age. Inspector Sands’ latest work, The Lounge, opens up the stark and often considered bleak world of the care home, struggling to cope with minimal resources and heightened emotions.
Underpaid workers, regularly confused & aggravated residents and disgruntled family members, The Lounge takes a look at them all. In a darkly comic story, courtesy of Lucinka Eisler, Giulia Innocenti, Ben Lewis and Lu Kemp, the audience is pushed into uncomfortable laughter but also reminded that this is still a portrayal of life, not a waiting room for the dead.
Marsha (Eisler), Clara (Innocenti) and Harry (Dennis Herdman) are three of the home’s permanent residents. They all want different things and are simply trying to live in as comfortable a manner as possible. Marsha seeks a bit of peace & quiet and to break out of the home and return to her own house at every possible opportunity. Clara on the other hand is a fan of crunchy biscuits and loud TV programmes – Jeremy Kyle blasting out at any opportunity, a torture no-one should have to bear. The chemistry between these two of stage is darkly humorous, as each of them battles for attention and both end up physically coming to blows on many occasions. Harry is waiting for his late-running grandson to visit, who eventually arrives and causes chaos for senior carer Valentina (Innocenti) on an already busy, short-staffed day.
There is a nervous laughter that permeates throughout the entire storyline of The Lounge, the tittering that comes from objectively finding the situation funny but subjectively wondering whether it is ok to laugh at such controversy. Elderly people smother each other one minute and argue over bananas and custard another; carers seem to have no idea what their residents need but prove to know best in the end; even the phone reception has given up in this “dead zone”. Both actors and creatives alike perfectly tread the balance between comedy and tragedy, which engenders feelings of emotional guilt and pity from the audience in waves.
The production maximises the impact of this and drive it onwards – Elena Peña’s sound design in particular accentuates moments of annoyance for the residents and instances of desperation, the weight of a situation threatening to overwhelm anyone that crosses the threshold into the home itself.
There is a beautiful point during grandson Mark’s (Herdman) visit – up to his eyes in debt, he breaks down and blames it all on the elderly. They had it easy in the 60s – they got the jobs, the cheap houses and ruined the world for the next generation. Everyone thinks that the grass is greener, but this is brought sharply into focus when he argues his case against a frail, elderly woman who has just wet herself because she can’t get up to go to the toilet in time. Just think, he won’t be able to afford even this in his old age – no pension, no house, no savings, no hope. A sobering moment for the younger generation to consider.
Kemp and Lewis direct The Lounge with an intricate knowledge of pace and pause. Certain moments take what seem a painfully long time to come to fruition, only for an audience to realise that the pace of life in different generations is at opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet, regardless of pace, there is a constant fluidity to the show amid some very tight character changes. Innocenti especially is able to physically shift between characters as she walks across stage, often tasked with playing multiple personalities in one scene. This is done with instantaneous ease, physically embodying each with a simple mannerism and tick that heralds the change. Herdman is equally adept of shifting between roles, but does so with a frantic urgency, dashing round the open backstage every few minutes in almost fruitless attempt to outrun the inevitability of age.
The ending to The Lounge is confused and not in keeping with the remainder of the show. A few minutes of alternative reality are a mismatched concept against the sedate world that the remainder of the show inhabits. Nevertheless, this is a production that ends with hope, a sense of comradery as the residents take up their typical seats and settle back in to their routine – it’s all just another day to them. Another set of moments where their bodies may be changing, but their personalities are as energetic and buoyant as ever.