Theatre review - Really Old, Like Forty Five

Posted on: 18 February 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Tamsin Oglesby’s excellent new play at the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre.

A society where the old are treated like laboratory rats for experimental treatment or face the option of euthanasia in their own homes is the chilling, all too plausible, prospect conjured up by Tamsin Oglesby in her excellent, timely new play Really Old, Like Forty Five (NT’s Cottesloe Theatre), directed by Anna Mackmin.

The play is set in a dystopian future where Britain is desperately overcrowded with infirm pensioners. (A programme note informs us there are currently 12 million pensioners, almost one in five of the total population, and 700,000 people with dementia in the UK which is said to reach over a million by 2025).

As a government research body seeks to deal with the problems of a maturing population by inviting the elderly to move into a care facility called the Ark in return for becoming guinea pigs in medical trials, a family addresses its own problems. Lyn’s memory starts to go, her sister Alice takes a fall and is persuaded her leg removed, and even their actor brother Robbie has to face the signs of ageing. Relations are put to the test across three generations, as are those who enter the increasingly sinister world of State Care with its callous disregard for human life.

Oglesby skilfully blends satire, surrealistic comedy and drama into a work which confronts head-on the nation’s embarrassment and fear about old age. It exposes a society in which compassion vies with pragmatism and, by asking unequivocal questions, comes up with some extraordinary answers, with the conflict between the personal and the political put squarely centre stage.

Les Brotherton’s imaginative and convincing two-tier set shows the heartless bureaucrats with their gleaming chrome and plasma screens devising strategies for dealing with the ageing population on the upper level, while the human drama is played out on the lower (stage) level.

Director Anna Mackmin elicits superb performances from Judy Parfitt as Lyn, coping with the onset of Alzheimer’s and Marcia Warren as her younger, quieter sister Alice. There are also strong performances from Gawn Grainger as their flamboyant brother Robbie, Amelia Bullmore as Lyn’s concerned daughter Cathy, and Michaela Meazza as a robotic nurse. (Let’s hope the NHS doesn’t take this example as a way of cutting costs!).

In short then this is a play seething with anger but laced with a rich vein of black humour which makes not for a depressing evening in the theatre but a rewarding one.

By Laurence Green

Where: NT’s Cottesloe Theatre

When: plays in repertory until 20 April

Box Office: 020 7452 3000

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