Anna Calder Marshall
Gisli Orn Gardarsson
Zimmer frames and Alzheimer’s are not the most obvious fodder for a musical; high kicks and false hips a problematic cocktail. The Lyric is out to disprove that assumption with their latest production, a musical that aims to show that love is not just a country for the young, that old people visit too and that a passionate relationship can blossom at any age.
Conceived by Gisli Orn Gardarsson the Icelandic director who worked with David Farr on Metamorphosis and Vikingur Kristjansson, the show was first performed in Iceland. Making use of pop songs rather than an original score, it has been adapted for English audiences with a new selection of music, including songs by the Kaiser Chiefs, Coldplay and David Bowie.
Having broken her arm, Margaret is dropped off in a nursing home by her uncaring son. She has no intention of staying for more than a few days, just until she is able to look after herself again, but then she meets Neville and they immediately click. They fall suddenly, hopelessly in love. They even run away with each other for the evening, spending a night at the theatre together before heading lustily to bed.
As all this is going on, perky Slavic nurses sing tracks by Blur and men in tartan dressing gowns burst into renditions of Stuck In The Middle With You. Much of the show’s drive and humour comes through the supposed clash between the aging cast and the modern songs. These are mostly delivered in snippets rather than full-blown renditions, so there’s fun to be had spotting the references. And, yes, hearing familiar songs like The Drugs Don’t Work and I Just Can’t Stop Loving You sung in a new context the former by a patient with Alzheimer’s, the latter by a man whose beloved wife is still with him but has long ago succumbed to dementia is affecting at times, the lyrics take on new meanings. But, on other occasions, the songs seem to have been settled on purely for their comedy value, The Kaiser Chiefs’ I Predict A Riot, sung by a chap in pyjama bottoms and a cardigan, a case in point.
The cast is made up both of stage professionals and a community choir composed of those with little or no previous performance experience. There’s no getting around the fact that some of the vocal performances are shaky. In fact the whole production has a ramshackle quality that teeters between the endearing and the irritating. Though the main performers, Julian Curry as Neville and Anna Calder Marshall as Margaret, handled their roles with charm and tenderness, there was a lot of unnecessary meandering for such a short production. The ending too, while poignant in a rather forced way, was deeply predictable.
I also bridled a little at the idea that we were meant to be so moved and amused by people over 70 having normal human desires and dreams. This is a production with good intentions Gardarsson worked as a caretaker in an old people’s home and was inspired by the stories of the people he met there but something about it felt just a little bit patronising to both the characters and audience. Though it has a certain sweetness, the central plot is too thin, there just isn’t enough there to sustain things. So much more could have been said about aging, about what it means for the body to crumble and the world to cease to see you as valuable, while the heart remains as strong and susceptible as it ever was.