Writer: Sandi Toksvig
Director: Rebecca Gatward
Reviewer: Lizz Clark
It’s common to refer to the Bechdel Test in discussions about women in media: it’s a way of confirming that women perform more than the most perfunctory role in a film, play or TV episode. Is there an equivalent test for older people, I wonder, or for old women specifically? So many of our stories leave them out.
This is what Sandi Toksvig seeks to address with Silver Lining, a new play about the residents of a nursing home hit by torrential, Biblical levels of flooding. The action is driven by the gang of women, who find themselves abandoned to their fate, save for the presence of a clueless young temp sent by the care agency. It provides fully fleshed-out roles for older actresses, allowing the stories of an older generation to take centre stage.
It’s also a comedy, unsurprisingly for work by Toksvig, with a broad appeal. The jokes have a familiar feel, and the style of humour is fairly gentle: lines about who’ll die next are delivered with only a fraction of the black depth that nursing-home comedy can plumb. Saga holidays and the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland are name-checked; somebody is not sure how to talk to black people; somebody makes a joke about bedpans; and so on and so forth.
What keeps this script from feeling as stale as week-old biscuits is the talent of the actresses who bring it to life. Notably, Sheila Reid is a glorious Cockney ex-landlady in leopard-print, giving us zingers aplenty with a wink of her mascaraed eye and a flash of her phone’s selfie camera. Elsewhere, Maggie McCarthy’s sardonic lesbian and Joanna Monro’s heartbroken housewife are sisters whose uneasy relationship is stretched to the limit as the play goes on.
For, left to themselves as the flood waters rise, the women bicker, panic, and start to reveal some of the truth of their lives. We hear how they lived and loved as younger people, but also what it’s like being old and living in the home. Having each character, in turn, deliver a backstory monologue feels lazy and formulaic by the third or fourth time, however, the relationship of the two sisters has a depth and grit when they interact with each other which is far more interesting than hearing a monologue from each one. When it turns out that the young care worker, too, has an inspirational story of thwarted dreams, the conceit has become ridiculous. (Newcomer Keziah Joseph, though, is full of sass and spark in the role.)
Silver Lining is exactly the play one might expect from Sandi Toksvig, the spokeswoman for unthreatening mainstream feminism. It sweetly suggests that theatre could do better for and with older women, but gives them nothing revolutionary to work with. The characters can surprise us, the sense of pace isn’t bad, and the story flows on to a watery conclusion. But that’s it. There are no fierce condemnations or blinding insights here about the state of health and social care for older people, the ageing population, or the invisibility of older women. Instead, it’s an amusing story underpinned with a vague sense that we are promoting social justice just by watching these characters rather than younger ones or men.
Yes, older women have more complexity and humanity than they’re often allowed by the media. But Silver Lining only gives us glimpses of that complexity amid its torrent of jokes.
Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Mark Douet