Hope Theatre, London – until 30 June 2018
Louise Coulthard’s new play is a carefully crafted look at the impact of dementia, both on those afflicted and the people around them. Rosie, whose mother died when she was very young has been brought up by her grandmother, Alice. The two have moved down to London together, where they share a house. Alice is elderly but characterful and independent, but then she starts hiding tins of spam around the house, losing her pension and making inappropriate remarks to Rosie’s Irish boyfriend, Cavan, about the Potato Famine.
Coulthard, who also plays Rosie, has written a piece that treads a subtle line. The situation and characters could easily tip into stereotypes and truisms, but this never happens. Instead, all three are entirely convincing individuals, whose love for one another is tested to breaking point by the stress of Alice’s rapid mental deterioration.
Cavan, played by Rowan Polonski, is allowed to be a straightforwardly nice guy, a bold and effective decision when many writers would have been tempted to use his reaction to Alice’s condition to drive the plot forward. Mary Rutherford, as Alice, delivers an exceptional performance, losing her mental bearings in a way that feels all too real. Coulthard’s Rosie is someone trying to cope with the multiple problems of ordinary life, one of which happens to be a grandmother who attacks the cleaner with a walking stick and makes tea for her dead husband.
Cockamany (US slang for nonsense) tackles several contemporary themes quietly and effectively, not least the financial pressures on young people that leave them with no choice but to live with older generations. The effects of dementia are explored in a way that leaves space for an open appreciation of the upsides, as well as the downsides. Alice becomes a child again, with the relief from responsibility that brings, but she also relives traumas of the past that she’s forgotten had happened, such as the death of her daughter. Meanwhile, her problems land squarely with Rosie, who suddenly finds herself becoming a struggling carer. Coulthard’s writing is of a very high quality, and a play that could have been worthy or predictable in different hands is moving, complex and real. Cockamany is a true delight, and Coulthard a serious talent.