The Wisdom Club
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
The subject of old age has been a well mined source for drama over the years—most recently with Alan Ayckbourn’s brilliant take on the problems of NHS provision for the elderly in Hallelujah.
The aim of writer Danusia Iwaszko with this play, working with Age UK and apparently two years in the making, is like Ayckbourn's: not to send up old age mercilessly, but to try and look at the challenges and the humanity behind those who feel they are on the scrapheap because of the number of their years, yet have so much more to give, including a voice and opinions that they feel are not being listened to. A worthy aim, but a worthy aim does not a good play make.
Wisdom Club is set in the hall of a local Catholic church rather than a hospital or retirement home—a very impressive set with typical tea hatch, plastic chairs and tables etc. Megan Hughes (Liz Crowther), a 70-something volunteer, runs a regular ‘Coffee Club’ for OAPs, with homemade scones and cups of weak tea, helped by Rani Mukherjee (Souad Faress), another lady of a certain age, who spends a lot of time on her new tablet stirring up campaigns on Facebook to get the plight of the elderly noticed.
Megan is typical—quite energetic, a bit fussy, likes to have plenty to do and at one time helped out regularly with her two grandchildren—but has been sidelined by daughter Suzie (Carol Starks in best 4x4 Home Counties stance) as the children have got older and Suzie has become wealthy enough not to have to work.
Their only customer seems to be Lenny, a nicely measured performance by John Branwell (who incidentally seemed to have all the best lines), a retired dray man who used to work for the local brewery, now trying to find things to fill his time and get out from under his wife’s feet.
So—what happens? Basically not a lot. They run out of milk, there are fears the vicar might close them down due to lack of interest, the rum babas turn out to be shop bought, the jumble falls out of the cupboard and has to be laboriously sorted etc etc.
This is a play that eavesdrops on their conversations, which revolve around the inevitable aches and pains, lack of respect, the younger generation and loss of sex, interspersed with local references (which seemed to please the Theatre Royal audience) and a bit of humour. It’s the gentlest of gentle comedies that ambles through its two hours with a couple of unlikely incidents thrown in to liven things up. But these happen offstage and so we don’t get to see the drama of the moment, only the aftermath as they all discuss the possible fallout and, in the case of Suzie and her mother, argue (rather genteelly it must be said) over what needs to be done.
Writer Iwaszko has a good ear for dialogue and there are some nice exchanges, some humorous lines, and truth is told—but it’s not enough to drive the play forward—and I’m afraid I lost interest long before the rather contrived ending.
The cast all do a sterling job, but lack of more actors / characters to give variety—and surprisingly poor use of the set from experienced director Roger Haines—means this is a production that really never takes off or catches fire in any meaningful way.
There’s probably a decent play in here somewhere, but this one lacks originality, pace or drama. And structure wise, it is like going back to the theatre of fifty years ago—and performance has moved a lot on from that.
If you like your plays gentle, slow, mildly humorous and not very challenging, this may be for you. But this isn’t going to be one to light any fires on a cold winter's evening. Or much champion the voice of the elderly.