Paradise Lodge aims, very honourably, to secure a voice for those with dementia and those experiencing it second-handedly. Despite its admirable objectives, and the emotional significance and relatability it most certainly had for a number of audience members, personally, I found its reality to fall far from its aims. In fact, I found this play to be very insensitive and, in fact, rather mocking.
To take something that is so truly dark, harrowing, terrifying, tender and tragic in real life and to turn it comedic, uplifting and, above all, funny is an extremely delicate ground to find oneself upon in theatremaking. It requires both skill and immensely careful and astute consideration. What we are presented with in this performance is not careful at all. We are presented with blunt caricatures of the dying elderly. More importantly, funny caricatures. This is mostly the case for Ronnie (Steve Cooper) who serves as the play’s clown with his cantankerous stubbornness and persistence to label everything as a “shit hole”. We are not given any background, any tragedy, any conclusions; we are not given anything at all about this character, other than his senility, irascibility, and, most incongruously and oddly, his randiness(!). What does any of this teach us or show us? What can we take, over than humour, from Ronnie failing to deal with a “blocked bog”.
What makes this performance so comedic (and hence insensitive) is the caricaturistic and melodramatic style that it makes use of, constituting itself through vapid and shallow content. For example, even when Ronnie is given a pendant to use in emergencies, to call his family members — a rather tragic and emotive item in itself, suggesting vulnerability, fragility and lack of independence — the focus remains comedic: Ronnie cannot understand how to use it; he thinks it is a remote and attempts to change the channel, all whilst angry and swearing; he hears disembodied voices coming from the telephone and reacts dramatically, confused. Whilst all of these have their obvious roots in sad realities and, in theory, could be seen as sensitive, realistic reconstructions of these, it is the manner in which they are done that is problematic. The expressions, the extreme physicality, the use of endless, superfluous throwaway props (more on that later). The manner in which they are represented is too far from raw and palpable.
This comedy becomes extremified when Violet (Sophie Osborne) falls over. Combined with the happy song, this fall, characterised by flailing arms and being hidden behind the armchair, is a ridiculous, funny moment. Worse, and ineffably more insensitive, is the fact that as Eric (Cooper) rushes behind the chair to check on Violet, Osborne has changed into her other character, Kylie, and stares on with a gaping mouth of melodramatic shock. Eric then effortlessly carries Violet out — Violet now being represented as a cardigan and bag. As the inanimate object disappears backstage, we are forced, yet again, to move swiftly on to happy songs and to watch a bumbling and nervous hostess trip awkwardly over her words whilst left alone. When Eric returns, he reveals that Violet has been taken to hospital and that the same fate took his mother, ultimately leading to her death, and what does Kylie do but quickly egg him on to stop crying and continue the performance?
The fact that this is a performance, a representation, conceived and constructed by individuals who are not elderly and who do not have dementia themselves, intensifies this performance’s comedic effect. With Kylie and Eric referring to themselves directly as actors, as performers — who also state blatantly that they will dress up and play various roles, various characters, for the entertainment of their audience — the effect is that we become conscious of the fact that this IS a performance, an artificial reconstruction. Rather insidiously, this forces us to consider the characters as just that, characters, with no pertinence or relative position in the real world beyond the stage. In all of their extreme frailty, senility, obscenity, profanity and obstinance, these characters become targets for our ignorant laughter (I would advise here that research be done on inferiority theories of comedy). This is not a sad, thought-provoking and considerate mode of theatre but one that sets out purely to entertain.
Admittedly, as someone with a significant history of witnessing loved ones go through dementia, there are most certainly times where a certain sense of humour arises, the typical “If you don’t laugh, you cry” scenario, yet there remains, obtrusively surrounding this humour, a definite and undeniable sadness, a sore consciousness of raw reality and of eventuality. This said sadness is not apparent at any point in this performance, mainly as any moments that are, in fact, veering towards sadness — such as Violet’s looking out of the window, waiting for the return of her husband, who passed some time ago — are rapidly glossed over, and the performance swiftly moves on to something else. Moments of comedy, however, are most longevous.
I was surprised to learn at the end of the performance that all of this was inspired by Cooper’s own mother’s passing. Perhaps this was a form of cathartic or therapeutic theatremaking for him, or perhaps he wished to lighten the subject or its surrounding stigmas through comedy and song. Without discrediting the trauma, emotion and significance of this reality, I found that this very significance and poignancy that constituted the very fabric of this work was lost rather terribly in this performance to this caricaturistic comedic style. One audience member commented that they were “spot on” with certain portrayals of dementia or general life within care homes but that he was surprised they had called it a musical comedy, because there was “nothing funny about it”. I think this summarises this tension between significance and theatrical representation very well.
I think the biggest problem with this performance is the inclusion of characters Kylie and Eric (a.k.a. The Doodlebugs). The Doodlebugs are given much too much of a voice, one that delineates from what should be the principal narrative. Whilst this is less so for the character of Eric, who, at least, reveals some personal connection with dementia, Kylie’s wanting to be a professional musical theatre actress is extremely unnecessary, distracting and irrelevant here. I understand that these characters’ backstories and interactions perhaps serve as a way of both introducing stigma and lack of awareness, care and respect for people suffering with dementia, and/or of contextualising their reason to be, as it were, in the dramatic text. However, given that Kylie’s character makes very little intellectual progression throughout the play, downplaying the importance of the performance to Eric by, again, glossing over his sorrow, these remarks see no correction and are left as rude, spiteful and ageist. We are left with two negatives: caricatures and these ageist comments — not in any way enlightening or useful. Needless to say as well, the title of “entertainers for the elderly at a retirement home” is enough to contextualise these characters, without Kylie wanting to make it big in the West End and Eric babbling on about touring the production.
I have mentioned a few times that moments of sorrow are quickly glossed over, but this is also true of many other areas of this performance, the most obvious being the performance’s [dysfunctional] relationship with its audience. Cooper clearly want to make an endearing and inclusive performance, primarily aiming to involve the audience, however indirectly, in overly joyous musical renditions. The problem is: the audience do not join in, not necessarily because they do not want to but because they do not know if they actually should.
This issue has its roots in the very beginning of the play when The Doodlebugs address the audience directly but do not leave enough time for them to answer, speeding rather hyperactively and overwhelmingly through their lines. When Eric then identifies audience members as characters in the production, Ronnie being principle here, they are slightly won back…but then Ronnie is embodied by Cooper and is no longer an audience member, and this spectator-character relationship is no more. Not to mention that Cooper never actually looks audience members in the eye, seeming to look over or through them, rather than at them. This ineluctably makes an audience feel invisible and fictitious, so when moments arise when they are requested to join in, they remain under the impression that it is a fictional, nonexistent audience that is being referred to, not them. I feel that this play really could have benefited from more audience inclusion. This would have made for more emotional connection and compassion on the audience’s behalf, and by referring to them as though they were the suffering elderly themselves, this would have made for more relatability, commanding the audience — however subliminally — to imagine themselves in their shoes.
I do like the idea of having two distinct realms, but only if much better articulated and more thoroughly conceived: one in which The Doodlebugs deliberate the material of the play, communicating with the audience; and another in which the audience are spectators, reflecting, with Eric and Kylie’s teachings/revelations in mind, upon the action they witness. This would have been both lighthearted but also thought-provoking — a more diversified mode of theatre that I believe this production is aiming for.
Some final small notes on technicalities. Set (Cooper), whilst providing a weak sense of symmetry, was overcrowded and displeasing the eye. I would have definitely hidden a few items out of sight, particularly the hats and wigs on the coat-stand which could have easily been concealed in a suitcase. This would have made for more overall visual appeal but also would have added intrigue when props were revealed. I do, however, like the idea of a few props in this production, such as the photo album, to be visible, as I would see these as odes to or souvenirs of the characters’ lives, histories and memories. Lighting (Cooper) was very effective and distinguished space and location very well; although, spotlights could have been a little more intense. Sound, being used very little in this performance (which I thought was a good decision), was also well designed.
Overall, I do understand what this performance was trying to achieve. I think it has, on paper, admirable intent and objectives, yet it lacks a degree of awareness of effect. It fails to align its intentions with its execution and its content with its style, making for unintentional inconsiderateness and mockery. Some things, I am afraid, cannot be made 100% joyous and comedic, and an appreciation of this fact, and a clearer, stronger implementation of the acknowledgement of it, would have made for a better case for this production, making it seem more recognisant and sensitive.
“An unthoughtful performance which confuses the light-hearted with the overtly comedic and which misappropriates suffering for joy.”
Photography credit: Sharon Hennesey.