Tamsin Oglesby’s new comedy can be tough viewing. Watching Judy Parfitt’s Lyn slide into the grip of dementia is sickeningly painful. But amid the anguish there is a lot to laugh about and even more to ponder.
Set some time in the near future when there are too many old people, too many young people and not enough in the middle to look after them all, Really Old, Like Forty Five is a scarily honest and satirical look at views about aging that does not shy away from laying bare the fears so many of us harbour. Many of its conversations – the stumbling over words, the confusion of people, the forgetting of what you were looking for – are so easily recognisable that it can be as chilling as the wintry wind whipping along the South Bank outside the National Theatre.
In Oglesby’s world, the aged have to earn points to prove their worth by spending their time looking after adopted grandchildren. Those who appear to suffer from dementia are sent for trials at institutions where robot nurses are employed to ensure no real human contact has to be made with the patients. Of course, there is more behind-the-scenes politics and financial jostling than the patients know.
The aging siblings at the centre of the play embody different responses to growing old: Gawn Grainger’s Robbie, like an elderly rock star, refuses to accept time’s work; Marcia Warren’s Alice cheerily accepts that what will be will be; and Parfitt’s Lyn fights against the tightening grip of dementia. It is the relationship between Lyn and daughter Cathy (Amelia Bullmore) that is the most affecting. The struggle for understanding and recognition, and the need to hold onto someone who is always slipping away from you create moments of exquisite pain.
This pain, which must be so readily recognised by many in today’s society, makes searching for humour in the subject dangerous. Focus the comedy in the wrong direction and you run the risk of alienating an audience. Oglesby finds her laughs not in the forgetfulness, but in the satire. Paul Ritter as ‘policy official’ Monroe nearly steals the show with a nursery rhyme-quoting rant when he is taunted by the world he has created. His bickering, arguments among colleagues, in-jokes about going to the theatre and a beautiful turn by Mimi Meazza as robot nurse Mimi all bring a little light to the otherwise dark proceedings.
With 700,000 people currently living with dementia in the UK – and over one million predicted by 2025 – coupled with an aging population, growing old and the issues that come with it are no laughing matter. But Really Old, Like Forty Five finds the comedy in the situation while also exposing the tragedy and forcing audiences to consider its truth, however painful that might be.