The plan had been for a light-hearted frothy show and there are plenty of those around but somehow, after the festive season had been put back into hibernation by the Grinchvirus, something more sobering seemed in order. And so I headed to the Actors Centre to catch up with a play that’s been on for a while but I just hadn’t found the time to get to. The Old House is a monologue piece, written and performed by Kate Maravan, which takes a hard look at something that directly led to the recent passing of Barbara Windsor and remains a curse for many – both sufferers and their carers.
Dementia and specifically Alzheimer’s are not words used in this play – although mention is made of “the D word and the A word” – but lies at the very heart of the piece. A mother and daughter travel to the coast and a house in which they once used to spend their holidays. The mother exhibits the classic symptoms of the disease and the daughter is frustrated and fearful about what the future will hold. The visit provokes mother’s memories and stimulates feelings; that seems to be the reason for why the journey has been undertaken. But gradually the daughter also finds herself reflecting on her own past as she particularly recalls the tragedy that befell one of her own twin daughters and that she still hasn’t been able to lay to rest.
With one of the characters struggling to remember the past and the other straining to forget it there is a classic sense of opposition woven throughout the play. In a nice reversal the daughter starts as sure footed and certain of herself but gradually becomes more questioning and hesitant about her life; the mother figure follows an opposite trajectory.
Intriguingly, Maravan plays both characters. She is a devotee of the Meisner Technique of performance which centres on the performer’s impulsive response to what is happening around them – particularly when it comes to listening to a fellow actor. In this play she is both initiator and responder, so it is interesting to see how she uses this to create the narrative before us. It involves her altering physically and vocally at often rapid speed to bring mother and daughter to life.
In other extended passages she is one or the other though still entering into dialogue with herself through use of her own voice over. At still other points she comments on the action and develops wider themes through poetic discourse; all of this helps to keep the piece moving forward and avoids the one actor one character setup which in the wrong hands can become tedious.
Director Kath Burlinson organises the ebb and flow of the piece to reflect the waves on the shoreline. There is a minor amount of specific camera technique deployed to make some points more telling – particularly in the location shifts as the characters move from inside, to the beach, to the town carnival. Various settings are evoked but as the piece is played out with just a chair in a black box space, the soundscape deployed plays an important role in bringing the play to life.
Adrienne Quartly delivers a carefully layered audio backdrop which enhances and supports the actor’s performance. Meanwhile movement director Vincent Manna has encouraged Maravan to be very fluid in her movements as she transitions from character to character and back again; through this slightly stylised movement the seaside location at the heart of the play is also conjured up.
As writer and performer Maravan demonstrates considerable skill in both areas. Her writing, particularly the poetic sequences, has a haunted quality which evokes time, place and character economically but tellingly. As a performer she holds the attention both through her vocal skills and the haunting quality of her movement. The Old House is a melancholy and emotionally charged play which examines a difficult subject from a new perspective. It may not be typical Christmas theatre, but it is piece that I was glad to unwrap.