I’m never quite sure why I put myself through dementia plays, they upset me like nothing else and yet I go again and again. The latest is Nessah Muthy’s Sundowning, currently showing at the Tristan Bates Theatre and based as it is, in part at least, on Muthy’s own family history, it is achingly done.
Whilst Alyssa has been locked away in prison, her grandmother Betty has faced a different kind of institutionalisation. Suffering from dementia, Betty’s daughter and Alyssa’s aunt Teresa has relocated to a care home to alleviate the strain but once Alyssa is released and discovers this, she sets about organising a jailbreak for her nan.
Naturally, there’s a rude awakening as Alyssa discovers first hand the trials of caring for someone with this condition, but Muthy finds a beautiful balance in sprinkling in a real poignancy in the moments when Betty finds her way through the clouds to resurface for snatches of joyous reconnection.
Helena Bell’s production captures this nebulous state of affairs expertly through skilful video work from Daniel Denton and sound design from Dinah Mullen that finds key moments of clarity through the white noise. Anchored by a thoughtful performance of real depth from Hazel Maycock, it is powerful stuff.
Sadly, the rest of the play doesn’t quite live up to this evocation of life with and time spent caring for those with dementia. The family travails between Alyssa and Teresa are underwritten, something exacerbated by Betty’s focus on her marriage, and you’re left longing for a greater sense of the world around these women. But ultimately that’s part of what dementia does, in cruelly narrowing the focus right down until it disappears.