Ipswich: Dementia can’t be a political football says writer of new play Visitors

Visitors, starring Eleanor Wyld and Linda Bassett. Photo: Chloe Wicks

Visitors, starring Eleanor Wyld and Linda Bassett. Photo: Chloe Wicks - Credit: Archant

Edie’s mind is unravelling, the latest victim of dementia. But she’s not the only one whose life is slipping past her.

Director Alice Hamilton, assistant director Ally Watson and writer Barney Norris. Photo: Chloe Wicks

Director Alice Hamilton, assistant director Ally Watson and writer Barney Norris. Photo: Chloe Wicks - Credit: Archant

Husband Arthur can’t afford to stop working their farm on the edge of Salisbury Plain to look after her. Son Stephen doesn’t want to take over the business, which has been in the family generations, and can’t afford to put his mother into care. When a young, blue-haired stranger Kate moves into care for her, the family is forced to ask are they living the way they wanted?

Robin Soans (Arthur) and Linda Bassett (Edie). Photo: Chloe Wicks

Robin Soans (Arthur) and Linda Bassett (Edie). Photo: Chloe Wicks - Credit: Archant

Examining the rural recession and later life care, comedy cum love story Visitors is the latest collaboration between playwright Barney Norris and director Alice Hamilton and stars Linda Bassett, Simon Muller, Robin Soans and Eleanor Wyld.

Simon Muller (Stephen), Eleanor Wyld (Kate) and Linda Bassett (Edie). Photo: Chloe Wicks

Simon Muller (Stephen), Eleanor Wyld (Kate) and Linda Bassett (Edie). Photo: Chloe Wicks - Credit: Archant

“I think a lot of people will relate to that ‘do I give up my life, become a nurse; how do I cope’,” says Bassett, who played Queenie Turrill in the BBC period drama Lark Rise to Candleford.

Visitors is about relationships as much as it is about the uncertainity and difficulties dementia brings.

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“I hope everyone will find their own meanings in the play, but I do hope it’s about more than dementia. Partly because dementia is about more than dementia,” says Norris.

“One of the positive movements in dementia care at the moment is the attempt to move from talking about dying of dementia to living with it. If attitudes towards dementia don’t encompass every other aspect of a dementia sufferer’s life we’re just writing people off.”

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The epigraph to the play is the Yeates’ quote: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, what more is there to say?”

Norris wanted to express a conception of life as the loving experience of something that is continually falling away from us.

Largely imaginative, then bolstered by anecdotal research; come rehearsal time Up In Arms secured relationships with the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research Trust and the Carers Trust. Their expertise helped him, Hamilton and the actors evolve a story they knew did justice to a tragic condition and one they hoped would draw it to people’s attention in a meaningful way.

“For me, a piece of art in any medium is successful if I come out feeling the need to ring someone I love - if it reminds me of how extraordinary the life I’m living is, what is valuable in it, what I care about and encourages me to be conscious and deliberate in my living. If my play makes someone call someone they haven’t called in too long I’ll be very proud,” says Norris, who feels like he’s grown up with Visitors.

Rewriting it occasionally over years as he became, he says, a better writer; finally, a year ago, Hamilton brought her dramaturgical focus to bear, giving him a few simple, strong notes to make it possible for hime to write the piece on the stage now.

Bassett, known for roles in films like East is East, The Reader, Calendar Girls, The Hours and Effie; found herself drawing on personal experience for the role of Edie.

“A lot of it’s in the writing, Barney’s done his work. I’ve known quite a few people who’ve had dementia before they’ve died, none as young as Edie; everyone knows somebody who has.

“I don’t tweet or anything like that,” she laughs, “but I know there’s been quite a bit of lively response [to the play] there. You’re aware, from the atmosphere in the audience, that there are people who are going through it and the responsibility [of playing somebody with the illness].”

Dementia’s increasing profile, says Norris, is a good thing. Diagnosis rates are increasing due to increasingly sophisticated work by the medical profession, the amazing work by leading Alzheimer’s charities and the work raising awareness of it in the media.

“There’s the gradual recognition if our society’s going to get so much older we’re going to need to talk about this. The priority now is to direct all the attention it’s possible to raise towards encouraging government to engage sincerely and concertedly with the funding issues around dementia.

“A lot of really positive noise is being made in government at the moment, it’s our job to try and keep those shoulders to the wheel. Dementia can’t be a political football, it’s our inheritance from an affluent century and we have to deal with it.”

Visitors runs at Ipswich High School for Girls’ Haworth Theatre April 3-4 and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, March 31. For more about the company, visit www.upinarms.org.uk or follow @upinarmstheatre on Twitter.

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