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‘Emotional journeys’: Melancholy / They Also Serve / How To Kill Your Mother – Southwark Playhouse (Online review)

At the start of 2020, Southwark Playhouse commissioned five playwrights to pen brand new short plays for performance by the Elders Company, its weekly drama group for anyone aged 65 and over. Once lockdown began, the theatre worked with the writers to adapt their plays for audio and last summer, members of the Elders Company gathered in small, socially-distanced numbers at Southwark Playhouse to rehearse and record them. All plays were directed by Toby Clarke, while the original music, engineering and sound design were created by Roly Botha.

Melancholy by Abraham Adeyemi

Ayckbournesque in its conceit, Melancholy begins with two couples at a dinner party. Played by Hilary Hodsman, Freddie Adamson, Keith Biley and Jeanette Lineham, we meet Beatrice and Patrick – the hosts in question – plus Sheila and Martin, the guests. For the hosts there is a change in their ‘dynamics’, as Patrick has ‘turned a corner’ regarding his depression and now channels his energy into cooking at every available opportunity.

As someone who has ‘known’ Patrick longer than Beatrice, she is amazed at his ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ transformation. Later, party games that are meant to be relaxing end up being a catalyst for unadulterated frankness, and Sheila involuntarily draws comparisons between her relationship with Martin and her former marriage to Patrick…

While Melancholy plays on the differences between men and women, and how they respectively change over time, it is Sheila’s uncompromising choices that tangentially have a bearing on others, offering both closure and the dashing of expectations.

They Also Serve by Wendy Buckley and John McRae

Losing one’s sight is difficult at the best of time. Imagine then, more than a century ago, when ‘vision rehabilitation’ (at least in the modern sense of the term) didn’t exist and there was no known support for soldiers in the aftermath of the First World War…

Performed by Keith Biley, Wendy Buckley, Gerry Daniels, Eileen Sheppard and John McRae, They Also Serve looks at two people who benefited from the charity Blind Veterans UK (formerly known as St Dunstan’s when it was set up in 1915).

We’re first introduced to Jimmy, during the period of the charity’s inception. Blinded by mustard gas in 1917, Jimmy is angry and bitter about his circumstances, as well as the absence of ‘duty of care’ from the authorities regarding the welfare of ex-servicemen. Meeting Sir Arthur Pearson – the founder of St Dunstan’s and himself a blind person for several years ­– Jimmy’s life changes beyond recognition…

Twenty-five years later, during the Second World War, we meet Bronwyn – a Welsh munitions worker who loses her sight and one of her hands when some detonators are set off. Despite still receiving support from her family and her boyfrend Gareth, Bronwyn is understandly depressed and struggles with motivation. A visit from Jimmy and a care worker from St Dunstan’s also proves to be a life-changing event…

While we see the positive effect that access to St Dunstan’s has in the lives of the characters, we’re acutely aware that life still isn’t a ‘bed of roses’ for them. In the case of Bronwen, a third party she encounters is rude to the point of petulance. Thankfully she later meets others who are simpatico with her interests and are not ‘culture snobs’…

The play is dedicated to the memory of Elders Company member Leslie Gay, who passed away in 2020.


How To Kill Your Mother by Georgia Green

Defying categorisation, How To Kill Your Mother isn’t macabre or distasteful as its title suggests. Rather, the play deftly tackles the delicate subject of assisting in euthansia for a terminally ill parent.

The crux of the play is the mother-daughter relationship of Miriam and Layla (played by Jaki Grudzinskas and Rosie Dawson). From the off, Green shows adeptness with the chronology of the narrative and the revelation of details to the audience. The play begins with the funeral service at Golders Green Crematorium, where Layla gives a heartfelt eulogy about her mother’s qualities. But before Layla can leave the premises and join the congregation for Shiva – the Jewish week-long mourning period where the deceased’s friends and relatives trade stories and memories – Layla is ‘met’ by her mother one last time…

From this point we’re taken back in time and hear about their close relationship – in some ways inevitable as they are the only family members living together. Once ‘the genie is out of the bottle’ regarding Miriam’s ‘health’, her wry disposition transforms the quest – to end her life on her own terms – into a black comedy. Layla, however, has to decompartmentalise her life – brainstorming with her mother about ways to die with a minimum of fuss, while at the same time denying her conflicted feelings during the pretence of leading ‘a normal life’.

While the play touches on the plausible and absurd ways to die, it is the emotional journey of mother and daughter that is of the most importance – cramming a lifetime’s worth of questions, advice and love into the limited timeframe allotted to them.

© Michael Davis 2021

Melancholy, They Also Serve and How To Kill Your Mother can be listened to at:

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