Carol Ackroyd reviews Julie McNamara’s Let Me Stay, a play that challenges our attitudes to people living with dementia
Let Me Stay is a 50-minute, one-act, one-woman show, performed by playwright Julie McNamara, with two performances recently at Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. It is billed as a love letter from Julie to her mother who lives with dementia: ‘………a celebration of life and love; a homage to Shirley McNamara, Queen of the Mersey’.
‘I have watched my Mother drifting away from me’, says Julie. ‘But I have to acknowledge the sorrow is mine. She is quite happy. Quite honestly Shirley’s having the time of her life!’ The play unpicks Julie’s efforts to keep her mum close and continue to know her through her changing persona. My friend Liz A’s description of a ‘poetic response to a much-needed sisterhood of mother-daughter chaos’ sums up the play’s feminist sharing of love and support for her mum conducted through surreal conversations and real-life frustrations.
Julie’s theatre company Vital Xposure aims to ‘engage with hidden voices with extraordinary stories to tell from people on the periphery of our communities’. The play has been written using her mother’s words and with involvement from her mum: ‘Thank you everyone – my audience – thank you for coming. I’ve had a very long career. Julie is my lover’s daughter. No, my daughter’s lover. No…yes. Thank you all! I’m a star’.
Director Paulette Randall makes great use of Julie’s ability to transform her character seamlessly from her own, questioning, doubtful or wicked self, into her bossy, cantankerous, boisterous or unsettled mother, the Catholic priest or middle class social worker. She keeps the flow through constant changes of mood and tempo.
Shirley enters the set blowing kisses, issuing personal greetings and ‘thanks for coming’ to random members of the audience. In a restaurant she hugs and greets the other diners, pinching and patting their cheeks to make them feel loved and welcome. At a formal ceremony where Julie is getting an award, Shirley arrives dressed in old gardening clothes and takes on the role of hostess, swiping champagne from the waiters, and explaining to a bemused reporter that she never knew Julie’s father. It’s a beautifully observed, loving and very funny account of how Shirley, living with dementia, has found ways to reinterpret her world and keep herself, as she has always been, centre stage.
Libby Watson’s set reflects the play’s theme. It consists of bare space with chair, part-encircled by white boxes stacked, somewhat haphazardly, to form a screen. Onto this screen is projected a slide show of faded and blurred monochrome images of Shirley’s past. Fragmented by the box-screen, the images appear, trigger a new partially understood thought, and disappear with a click. From time to time, the sign language interpreter appears to be a useful prop and gets briefly drawn in. It is a good metaphor for a mind becoming stripped of meaning and purpose, pulling in new interpretations.
Perhaps this play is in part a response to those ageing feminists whose longstanding preoccupations with patriarchal and corporate power structures sometimes seem at risk of being replaced by fear of personal decline and, in particular, of dementia. Alzheimers seems to represent a particular terror to many of us. Maybe it’s time to reassess these fears, and understand them as a manifestation of our own prejudices. Disabled people have long insisted they don’t want a ramp at the back of the building – they want accessible buildings as the norm. We may have begun to understand these physical or sensory access needs, but as a society we’re a long way from recognising what this means for people with dementia.
Each time we express frustration and impatience with someone in a queue taking time to find the right change, or don’t step in to help someone who’s struggling to manage, we make their lives a bit harder and reinforce and perpetuate their exclusion. Throughout the developed world we do this so effectively that we’ve managed to all but exclude people with dementia, as well as those with learning disabilities, from most public spaces and activities. Generally they are hidden at home with carers, mostly family, mostly women. Whenever they do appear in the outside world, they need an escort, a guard, since the rest of us can’t be trusted to look out for people with impaired cognition.
This play proposes an alternative. When football supporters in the pub join the frenzied chants of the crowd on the overhead TV screen, Shirley hears them chanting ‘Shirleee … Shirleeee ….. Shirleeee’ and turns to thank the pub crowd for her rapturous reception. Julie concludes that if you can’t beat them, she may as well join in the chanting : ‘Shirleee….’. Let Me Stay starts to consider what it means to be the same person when so much has changed and been lost. By finding threads and continuities and constancies of character, and working with these, Julie maintains and develops her relationship with her changing mother. It ends with Julie supporting and coaxing Shirley to sing along with her ‘let me stay, let me stay in your arms’.
The play doesn’t tackle the harshest realities of dementia – either the immense frustration, distress and fury experienced by many people with dementia struggling to understand or manage things that used to be effortless, or the mirror distress of relatives and friends, mainly women, managing a seemingly impossible and never-ending caring role, with minimal or no recognition or support. Nor does it address care services based on minimum wages with no recognition of the skills required to support someone with these impairments to lead a fulfilling life. These are brutal truths about dementia, but not what this play is about. Rather, it concerns our own, societal, attitudes to dementia, and challenges us to understand that our prejudices are just that, and are not inevitable. A world where the crowd is indeed calling ‘Shirlee ….. Shirlee …..’ as an expression of love and support is not impossible. The play is enormous fun, beautifully performed, and it makes you think. If you get the chance, go and see it.