The Old House – The Actors Centre

Reviewer: Eve Newstead 

Writer: Kate Maravan 

Director: Kath Burlinson 

“Who are you?” At first it appears a simple question. In the world of The Old House though, rendered so vividly by Kate Maravan, it is loaded with heartache and grief. Maravan’s stunning play tells the true story of losing the mother she once knew to Alzheimer’s. Viewers who have experienced this same tragedy, will know all too well the pain this question brings; the agony of being unrecognisable to their loved ones.

On a trip to the old family holiday home by the sea, a daughter attempts to reconnect to her mother who, she says, is “unravelling, day by day, fear by fear.” The woman is also grieving the tenth anniversary of the death of one of her twin babies. So, as the pair holiday-make – picnic, drink wine, visit the carnival, eat ice cream – they hurdle through fraught cycles of emotion. The lapping waves of the sea on the shore is an apt setting for the relationship. Although the women are drifting apart, they constantly find new ways to come together.

The stream opens with an empty stage and only a singular chair is used as a prop throughout. Maravan’s skilled and sustained performance of both characters is phenomenal and nothing else is needed. With the arch of her back, the sucking of her gums or the pitching of her voice, she switches between characters. Mother and daughter are distinctly separate but their family resemblance remains undeniable. Experiencing the play through a camera lens enhances this; the subtle changes of camera angle strengthen the powerful effect already created by Maravan. The one-woman form works well in multiple ways. In moments we feel their enduring connection. In others we recognise the woman’s fierce sense of being alone – her mother is not there with her, not really.

The script, humorous, realistic and honest, is packed full of history but never becomes heavy. In only an hour Maravan uses language to conjure up vivid scene changes, from beach to bedroom, as well as both a deep understanding of their lives and wider observations on illness. Adrienne Quartly’s use of sound evokes a sense of scene in a similarly gentle but powerful way as the script. The woman’s response to her mother’s dementia is incredibly human. She is kind and patient, as well as becoming frustrated and angry. The fact that her mother no longer has the capacity nor knowledge to provide support to her when she is grieving for her baby is painful to watch. It is, however, a sad truth of losing someone to Alzheimer’s. They can no longer be there when you most need them.

As sorrowful as it is uplifting, The Old House displays the tenderness and joy the women continue to find in one another, even when the woman recognises that the mother she knows is not present in that moment. The woman learns to find peace with their new normal and in embracing the present moment for what it is; even if what that means is just doing the hokey cokey. Maravan’s work is not a mere mourning piece, but a guide to thinking out new ways of connecting meaningfully to someone with Alzheimer’s.

Runs here until 13 December 2020 

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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