Theatre Review of An Evening With Dementia, written and performed by Trevor T. Smith, produced by Westgarth Productions

British Medical Journal April 2011

Review by:  Lawrence C. Kaplan MD, ScM, FAAP,

Consultant, Neurodisabilities, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, UK

March 20, 2011

  1. ★ ★

When I was a medical student in  the 1980’s, the most enduring advice I received was to never be afraid to imagine what it must feel like to actually have my patients’ illnesses, to not sympathize but to empathsize.  Gaining that insight however can be difficult, for it often requires the student to discover new things alone, without the teacher helping him/her separate illness from its own context.

An Evening With Dementia, the award-winning new play currently on tour throughout the UK, is able to teach both clinicians and non-clinicians alike about Dementia in ways I have rarely seen achieved in the classroom or in the clinical setting, let alone, the professional theatre. More than a play, it is a powerful lesson. It enlightens, inspires, and most important, teaches what the individual with advanced dementia might want others to understand if he could be the teacher. Here is a theatrical production that takes on a compelling subject in a ways that are both informative and thoroughly entertaining at the same time.

Brilliantly written and performed by distinguished British actor, Trevor T. Smith, and produced by Westgarth Productions, this one man play invites us into the inner thoughts and struggles of an elderly man who simply wants us to know what it is like to have dementia.  That is the simple yet powerful premise of the play.

It opens with an elderly man sitting alone speechless and seemingly oblivious to the entering audience, and then this image becomes suspended as he struggles, and then confidently begins to speak.  The story unfolds with a dignified humor and wise and piercing irony, but is never maudlin or self-pitying.

In one hour, Smith weaves many episodes of man’s life into strained memories. For the clinician, one sees clarity in his earlier recollections, but for recent memories this character looses continuity;  he shares his frustration clumsily explaining the tools he uses to maintain his dignity in a world of strangers. We witness the recollection of a young man, ‘Ron’ who visits him frequently, sometimes with others by his side, who asks him to kiss a strange “old lady” and meet a baby for the first time. We surmise this is his elderly wife and family. We struggle with him, however, as he tries to make sense of these things, only remembering the real name of his son when he tells us about the young man crying for “no apparent reason.”

No one feels awkward sharing this intimacy; to the contrary we become deeply interested in what he has to tell us, and want to learn more. We are led through the labyrinth of memory loss, at times experiencing it ourselves, trying to unravel the confusion of not recognizing familiar faces or voices. There are plenty of places to laugh, but never uncomfortably, as well as to pause to think of our own frailties.

The character, a former actor, ponders at one point, could he perhaps now do “King Lear” when for so long, he never felt ready for that role. For a moment, the audience prepares for cliché, yet the parallel power of Shakespeare’s message and someone struggling to connect again to his past is riveting and beautiful. He tells us, yes he can because he “know what it means,”

And at perhaps the most poignant moment in the play, our teacher, a former actor himself, joins us in the audience and sits, as together we wait awkwardly for the play—his play—to continue.

This play enlightens those who know--- or perhaps should know--- about Dementia because it provides the human context of a condition we think we know about.  And where it departs from clinical convention is where poetically philosophical moments are introduced.  But these are necessary “take home points,” no different than what a good teacher might offer his/her students and critically essential to the play.

An evening with Dementia recently nominated for the prestigious Offies Award, began as a sell out show in the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, one of the notable performances that year that outgrew its performance space exponentially as word got around. That seems to have been the pattern since, with venues during the past months including The Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, Belfast, and The Helix Theatre in Dublin. It can be seen at the Wexford Arts Centre (May 7th), The Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington, Devon (June 17th), Worcester’s Number 8 Theatre (October 15th), Cotswold Playhouse, Stroud, Glos.  (October 21st), and The Mill Studio at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford (October 6th) In addition Avante, a care trust, is sponsoring  two performances for its staff and others, 30th June and 1st July 2011 at the Arden Theatre, Faversham Kent, (Enquiries 01795 597459).  There is also a trailer for 'An Evening with Dementia' that can be seen on YouTube.

I can envision indeed, that this play will continue to find a deserved place as a powerful teaching tool in health professional training.  It has the portability, but also the theatrical power and vision that even our best textbooks often can’t achieve. It also has the same unmistakable quality to inspire as our best teachers might have done.

Lawrence C. Kaplan MD, ScM, FAAP

Consultant in Neurodisabilities

Professor of Paediatrics