Review: Really Old, Like Forty Five, National Theatre

“You’re not that old, you just look it”

Really Old, Like Forty Five is a new play from Tamsin Oglesby which looks at the challenges that an increasing ageing population is having on society. We see a government thinktank come up with strategies to deal with them, and we also witness 3 siblings are dealing with old age and the effect it has on their extended family. This dual perspective is effectively shown by use of a split level stage: the government bods are perched on a balcony on top and we see how their decisions affect the general population in the form of the family who occupy the main lower part of the stage, with its mini-revolve allowing for quick scene changes.

I found it to be highly amusing and also highly moving: it’s wittily written, with funny lines popping up all over the place, we’re often laughing at our own prejudices against old people but then quickly forced to confront them as we see just how far this government is willing to go to provide a ‘final solution’ in witnessing the trials of Alice, Lyn and Robbie with their families. Gawn Grainger as Robbie gamely dresses up in more and more ridiculous ‘street’ outfits as he chases a long-gone youth and Marcia Warren has a wonderful twinkle-eyed charm as the ever chipper Alice, with a beautiful speech about the vagaries of the human memory in response to her sister’s distressing decline and jumbled up recollections of their shared youth.

Elsewhere, Paul Ritter is very funny as the head of the government department dealing with the ‘ageing problem’, saying all the things that we’ve thought but would never dare say out loud in ever-plausible government-speak (including an ingenious solution to crowded pavements which I can actually see being implemented) but never becomes monstrous, we always see the man behind the suit, making his journey in the second half all the more heartbreaking. And Lucy May Barker did well with a somewhat underwritten part as a teenager adopted by Lyn as part of one of the government schemes.

But the evening belongs to Judy Parfitt as Lyn, the rapid onset of her Alzheimer’s throughout the course of the play is enthralling, so difficult to watch at times, especially when watching the pain etched on the face of her daughter, but beautifully played by Parfitt. The lightning switches from flashes of genuine emotion and recollection to irascible outbursts and the comfort of the familiar rambling, however bizarre, have a weighty authenticity about them, marred only by the daughter’s bizarre late request for an explanation about whether her father had had an affair: an odd thing to be concerned about I felt, given how far gone her mother was. But this was the only mis-step in Oglesby’s writing for me, it was otherwise very strong.

Finally, there is a stunning performance from Michela Meazza as Mimi. Meazza is better known as a dancer, being a member of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company, and I don’t want to give too much away here, but she delivers a physical performance which literally has to be seen to be believed, I loved it.

This was much more of a black comedy than I was expecting: very funny in parts and bleak in others, indeed those who have personal experience of dealing with relatives with Alzheimers may find a painful truth in many scenes here. It is briskly directed by Anna Mackmin, and ultimately I found it very moving. That said, whilst lots of interesting questions are raised here, about how we treat our elderly population, quality of life versus its longevity, learning to age gracefully, dealing with Alzheimers in the family, few answers are actually given to us, much is left for the audience to just think about, not necessarily a bad thing…

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with an interval (in previews)
Programme costs: £2
Note: in a pleasing affirmation that karma does indeed exist in this world, after being mugged one day, I got upgraded the next. Having booked a restricted view ticket on the side for this show, I was bumped to the centre of the pit just a few rows from the stage! Apparently, the restricted view also currently includes a considerable view of the backstage area given the small revolve and so whilst they investigate options, people are getting upgrades which should be a welcome surprise for a lucky few.

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