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Have Your Circumstances Changed?

Lu Kemp in collaboration with Elena Peña, Cis O’Boyle, Ben Lewis & Jamie Vartan
Artangel in partnership with Age UK Islington, St Luke’s Community Centre, Central Street Cookery School and Vital Arts
Former FADS shop, Archway Mall, London

Dudley Sutton and Mitchell Jelley in the third play Credit: Manuel Vason

What’s it like when you are old? Can you cope / could you cope? What are the problems?

Our population is ageing as people live longer. We no longer all live in extended families who will look after us. The media so often have stories of in adequate care homes (and who is going to pay for them?). It is going to happen to almost all of us but, unless you know someone trying to deal with Alzheimer’s or are yourself already ageing, how often do you think about it, despite all those reminds you get about pensions?

This triptych of three short plays will certainly make you do so. It has been devised from real-life discussions, initially those attending cookery classes for men over 65, but this is neither a piece of verbatim theatre nor a do-good demonstration of practical help. It takes a surreal look at day-to-day life situations.

The first two plays are staged in the windows of a disused shop, the audience watching street side, listening on headphones. The metal shutters rise to reveal the first one set as a working class kitchen. Moving along to another window, the second takes place in a more middle class sitting room. For the third, the audience moves inside to view a bathroom scene, still behind a wall of glass. It is a presentation that emphasizes the privacy of each situation being observed.

Each scene presents an interaction between an old man and a young boy. The boys appear to be close observers of the old men’s actions but how aware are the old men of the boys? Their presence is intermittent: what do they represent?

In the first scene, an old man (Paul Humpoletz)starts to get himself breakfast but just opening a cupboard door he spills cereal all over the floor. He takes a cup from a cupboard that is stacked with cups way back beyond the wall. He takes milk from an otherwise empty fridge to find almost none left but, when his back is turned, a boy (Luca Toomey) climbs out of the fridge with a full bottle.

It becomes increasingly surreal and at the same time like a nineteenth century Grimaldi pantomime with the boy disappearing into a rubbish bin and popping up elsewhere, soil cascading from shelves and herbs growing from drawers, a live chicken found in the fridge as the boy, or the vestiges of earlier habit, helps him progress to cooking an omelette.

This section seems to be at least partly about memory loss but perhaps also the inadequacy of men in whose earlier lives it was women who dealt with feeding them.

Surreal surprises continue to add interest as the second scene sees Roddy Maude Roxby as a man watching television which sparks off memories of football, family, card games and TV game shows. A football rolling across the room from nowhere followed by a young lad (Kareem Onyiukah) who kicks it around and joins in playing demon patience among other things. Memories again? Though perhaps the boy is also outside playing football just below the window. This scene seems to focus on happy reminiscence and a contrasting loneliness.

The bathroom scene, with Dudley Sutton as the old man, trying to find eyewash in an overfilled medicine cupboard, inspecting his aging face and starting to shave, shifts the relationship. This boy (Mitchell Jelley), unlike the others, seems to follow his senior’s actions rather than initiating them, but it too has its share of surprises.

Are the problems the boy’s or the old man’s? While age may be making some things difficult to cope with it doesn’t mean someone is finished they still have much to give others.

The three scenes can also be read as a way of highlighting the help that the elderly may need and should be given. The first scene is about eating properly: nutrition, the second keeping minds alive: interests, contact, enjoying life, and the third highlights the need for help with health and hygiene.

In just three fifteen-minute episodes, director Lu Kemp and her team embrace a whole range of issues in a way that is imaginative and moving. Have Your Circumstances Changed? will make people think but will they take action? It is going to take more than social services can offer to handle the problems of a longer-living population.

The media may be obsessed with risks of paedophilia, but we should be encouraging cross-generational contact. It is not just about responsibility and caring, there are benefits for both old and young.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton