Hope Theatre, London – until 30 June 2018
A little over a year ago, I sat at The Hope Theatre and sobbed my way through Off The Middle’s In Other Words, a devastatingly sad story about a husband and wife coming to terms with his diagnosis of dementia. This time I was back at The Hope to see Think and Hit’s debut production Cockamamy, another play about dementia – and surprise surprise, I ended up in floods again.
I don’t know why theatre on this topic tends to hit me so hard, but I suspect it’s because so often it’s inspired by real experiences and people, and you can tell it comes from a place of deep love and affection mingled with pain and often loss. If that’s the case then Cockamamy is a double whammy, as both writer and actor Louise Coulthard and director Rebecca Loudon know what it’s like to care for a grandparent with dementia, and have put that experience to powerful use to create a funny and deeply poignant play.
Let’s back up a bit, though, because Cockamamy isn’t just a play about dementia. It’s really the story of Alice and Rosie, who are far more than just grandmother and granddaughter; they’re best friends. Alice raised Rosie following the death of her mother when she was a little girl, and the strong bond between them is clear from the outset. But there are clouds on the horizon: Alice is getting increasingly confused and forgetful, and she’s convinced she’s being visited by her late husband Arthur. When Rosie meets a new boyfriend, both she and Alice are forced to make some tough decisions about their futures.
It was always going to be a tough story to watch, but what makes Cockamamy so heartbreaking is how instantly likeable the characters are. Alice is a particular delight: a feisty, quirky old lady with a mischievous sense of humour and a surprising habit of quoting Beyonce. We love her from the start, so it’s painful to watch her become more and more fragile and bewildered as the play goes on – particularly as there are moments when the old Alice reappears.
Mary Rutherford’s superb performance is matched by that of Louise Coulthard as Rosie, as she struggles with the conflict between wanting to protect her gran and wanting to get on with her own life. She’s just met the perfect man – Cavan, an Irish junior doctor played by Rowan Polonski – but although he’s patient and supportive of Alice’s situation, their relationship is put under ever greater strain as Rosie repeatedly finds herself forced to choose between them. Unsurprisingly, this building tension ultimately comes to a head in a final scene that’s ugly and brutal in both its honesty and its emotional impact.
Photo credit: Alex Brenner
If I have one quibble, it’s that the long scene changes interrupt the pace of the production and leave us looking at Alice’s empty living room for rather longer than feels necessary. But this minor irritation doesn’t detract from a play that perfectly balances entertainment with an honest, powerful portrayal of the impact dementia can have on families and relationships. Highly recommended, but prepare to be put through the emotional wringer.
Cockamamy is at The Hope Theatre until 30th June.