Bothered and Bewildered is described by its writer as a ‘comedy drama’; in fact, it is a clear exposé of the devastation of dementia – the bewilderment of the sufferer and the effect on the family – and that makes for a tragic story with some comic relief.
The problems are highlighted from the beginning, when the calm questioning of the consultant (Peter Thomas) establishes the situation. Two daughters are having to cope with their mother: Beth (Kelly Whitton) is brusque and straight-talking; Louise (Ashleigh Howe) is gentle and conciliatory; both are determined not to put Irene into a home. These consultations occur throughout the play as we watch Irene’s deterioration and the responses of Beth and Louise.
We have come to expect flawless performances from Sheila Eyre; Irene is a tour-de-force, one moment childlike and quietly bewildered, another screaming and violent. Her body sags, her head slumps, and then she’s on her feet, fighting, pushing, rushing out and about. The scene when her lost son comes to find her and she doesn’t admit who she is is a masterpiece in body language: you just have to look at her face to know what she’s thinking. The cradling of ‘baby'(actually a teddy-bear) makes one tearful.
Irene’s conversations with her imaginary companion, Barbara Cartland, the world-famous novelist whose books she reads, seem normal in comparison with reality and provide the comic relief: Joan Young, resplendent in diamanté pink ball gown and brilliant eye-shadow, dispenses advice about everything, from honey (“Tell her to put it on her spots”), to eggs (“No more than two a week”) and virgins (“When did you lose your virginity?”) in an erstwhile BBC clipped accent, peppered with ‘darlings’; it’s a wonderful impersonation. These conversations are the means by which we learn about Irene’s past, and the SECRET.
The fiction is fun; the reality is not. The sisters love each other but quarrel; Beth’s marriage is threatened; she and Louise have jobs but are constantly tired. Act 2 sees unmarried Louise bringing Irene to live with her, having decided to care for her full-time. There is a touching scene where granddaughter Shelley (Mackenzie Pickersgill, who also played young Irene in a flash-back) gives her aunt an evening off and has a beauty session with Irene: the ingredients of the face mask are approved by Barbara and all is well till Irene looks in the mirror and accuses Shelley of poisoning her. Then Shelley, who apparently has quarrelled with her mother, because Beth has decided that a home is the only option, telephones her and apologises. Soon afterwards, Beth is seen ringing care home after care home.
It is good to see RLT stalwarts Sheila, Joan and Peter so well supported by newcomers Kelly, Ashleigh, Mackenzie and Sam.
Sound effects are essential to this play – the ringing of the phones, the noises that Irene imagines (singing, tapping, baby crying) – and cannot be faulted. When the long-lost son (Sam Howe) raises his hand to press an imaginary doorbell, it rings!
Lighting is also essential: the night scenes are atmospheric, and the consulting room area at stage right is well spot-lit and right on cue.
The simplicity of the set is deceptive: both the ingenuity of the set-builders and the presence of one of them during the interval are required to change one living room into another. Act 1’s room has a picture window, through which we see a rural landscape painted by Andy Massey; Act 2’s room is quite different.
This is a very challenging play, and Keri Duffy, who has not produced at the theatre before, has risen to the challenge splendidly. A word of warning; this is not for the faint-hearted. To those who have had experience of dementia it will be sadly familiar; those who have not will find it thought-provoking, even scary. Dementia is a major problem of our age.
Reviewed by Christina Jones
PS Just a thought: this play suggests that dementia is caused by past traumatic events; there are other causes, of course.