A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

 

The World premiere of

 

The Company of Strangers

 

 

Written and Directed by Carol Bunyan

 

Producer: Alan Charlesworth

 

Set Design & Costumes: David Harris

 

Lighting Design & Ops: Seth Rook Williams

 

 

Courtyard Theatre

 

 

30 August - 25 September 2011

 

Ever wondered what it might be like to end up in a nursing home, living out the rest of your days in “the company of strangers”? Well, Carol Bunyan’s new play saves you the effort. In the recreation lounge of the Restmore nursing home, head nurse, Nick’s (Alan Charlesworth) efforts to enliven the atmosphere, belie his own haunted past as he wages a petty war with the Matron, (Imogen Bain) whose personal life takes priority over the care of the patients. When two reluctant, work experience students, Matt (Aaron Mwale) and Suzy (Rebecca Farrell) arrive, they end up learning much more than they bargained for.

The Company of Strangers takes a cynical look at a nursing home where the negligent staff are more concerned with cover ups and private anxieties than taking care of their elderly residents. Arch-matriarch, Imogen Bain waddles about, truly uninterested in the day to day running of the home, combining a fiercely domineering side with saccharine desperation as she turns to online dating to satisfy her lust. Charlesworth’s Nick is to a degree, genuinely caring; however he derives more entertainment from his colour coded wall charts than the patients, inattentive to their real needs due to his repressed guilt. Bunyan has the main characters repeat too many monotonous monologues with overtly dramatic lighting that don’t really advance the play; rather, they drain the energy from the performance.

It is only with the arrival of the Spanish cabaret act of past-it performers, Don (John Fleming) and Muriel (Anny Tobin) that the pace picks up and provides a much needed energy boost, with a show biz couple who can hardly walk let alone do the Flamenco. Fleming and Tobin are a great double act, evoking a real sense of tragic history as has-been performers constantly at each other’s throats, whose claim to fame is that they once almost worked with Des O’ Connor.

One of the frustrations with The Company of Strangers is that it is hard to know who you are supposed to care about. Only the elderly resident, Ken, played by Derek Wright evokes any sympathy, but unfortunately he has the least amount of lines. Wright’s face is the picture of misery as he sits there petrified, clutching his Zimmer frame while the matron barks orders at him. Yet Bunyan does achieve a moment of real tenderness when Suzy (Rebecca Farrell) fills his pipe for him. Despite appearing shaken and unaware, Wright is amusingly blunt and gives a voice to the geriatrics who are overlooked, both on stage and in the script. It seems Bunyan has missed the opportunity to really engage with the elderly at the expense of focusing on a cantankerous matron and a paranoid male nurse. Yet both Bain and Charlesworth are highly convincing in their roles, victims of their own complacency and the product of a health system too huge to be adequately monitored.

The Company of Strangers may be closer to reality than we would like to admit, however in fairness, there are many nursing homes where the residents are treated well. It is certain HCA’s, nurses and matrons have a difficult but highly important job and Bunyan handles the sensitive material entertainingly, with a professional, well cast group of actors. However the play is too long and ultimately none of the main issues are resolved, while the most interesting subject matter, the elderly and their relationship to the young, is underdeveloped.

Bunyan’s play begs the question, are nursing homes symptomatic of a society that doesn’t want to take responsibility for its elderly? In a vicious circularity, it seems some would rather have them dealt with like Victorian children – seen but not heard.

 
Courtyard Theatre
40 Pitfield Street
London N1 6EU
 
www.thecourtyard.org.uk
Box Office: 0844 477 1000
Tickets: £16 (£12 Concs.)

 

 

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