How do you write a play about dementia for four year olds? Chris Titley talks to the writer who has done just that
Dementia is a difficult subject, even for adults. So when playwright Brendan Murray was asked to write a story incorporating the condition for an audience of three to seven year olds, he recognised it was a challenging brief.
Soon however, he had found a way in. The play is for the Tutti Frutti theatre company, and artistic director Wendy Harris asked that it feature a grandmother and her granddaughter.
“I liked the idea of writing for two people of very different ages. I’ve done some work on inter-generational themes in the past and it fascinates me,” he said.
“And I think it fascinates young audiences to explore that relationship with someone much older.”
Then Brendan realised that the memory loss sustained by people with dementia was only half the story.
“One of the themes of the play is it’s not just about loss, it’s about discovery. We were looking at how people learned and copied,” Brendan said.
In the play, called Monday’s Child, a small girl meets an old woman in a garden. The woman starts looking for something and the girl helps her.
“They turn up all sorts of things along the way, which are some of the memories of the old woman – things that take her back in time.
“Right at the end of the play they find a photograph of a little girl in a dress. The young girl says, ‘Is that what you’re looking for?’ and the old lady says, ‘I think so’.”
Brendan describes it as a mood piece. “There’s nothing very dramatic that happens in it, if you see what I mean.
“The idea could be that the little girl is the old woman, that she’s meeting her child self.
“It’s very gentle, it’s quite funny along the way because they get up to all sorts – they dress up, they play games and they find the old woman’s knickers.
“Kids love all that. There’s quite a lot of giggles on the way – and moments of stillness and sadness.”
Real life research
Monday’s Child was born out of director Wendy Harris’s mother in law having Alzheimer’s. She thought Brendan might be the person to explore the themes of memory and discovery in a play for young children, their teachers and families.
As part of their research, Brendan and others met with various experts on dementia.
“The man from the Alzheimer’s Society put into our heads the idea of it being like a parallel reality, which was very appealing.
“The difficulties arise when we try to pull people back from their reality to ours, and then people get very upset and confused.
“They have this mantra, ‘Does it matter?’ So if your friend with Alzheimer’s wants to go to sleep in his wedding suit, well, does it matter?”
Like many adults, Brendan has first hand experience of someone close to him being affected by dementia.
In his case it wasn’t an elderly relative but a former partner, Chris. Twenty years ago he got AIDs-related dementia.
“He was only ill for six months, and he was only demented – horrible word really, but that’s what he was – for the last few weeks of his life.
“My last conversation with him was him saying, ‘Who are you?’ And I said, I’m a friend who comes and looks after you.”
With a beautiful score played by cello and piano, Monday’s Child is described by its director as “delightful, funny play full of joy”.
Brendan is hoping the subject matter won’t put families off from coming to the show. “I saw the final run through and it’s just enchanting,” he said.
“I’m hoping some of these images will stay with the audience when they grow up.
“It’s about finding moments of connection – between the old and the young, between people who are in this reality and people who might be in another reality.”
Hope, optimism and laughs
Tutti Frutti develops new shows in conjunction with York Theatre Royal. Although now living in Brighton York is a city Brendan knows well, particularly from his time as a student in Huddersfield.
His previous collaboaration with the company, Hare And Tortoise, won the Best Play for Children and Young People category at the 2012 Writers Guild of Great Britain Awards.
Brendan is now working to adapt Paul Gallico’s haunting wartime novella The Snow Goose for the stage.
“It’s a great story, it’s an absolute bugger to adapt. Two people who don’t really talk to each other followed by Dunkirk and death at the end.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, roll up, have a great time!’”
Brendan’s work on Monday’s Child has had a direct impact on this project.
“My idea is there’s a parallel story about an old woman with dementia, who is actually the girl in The Snow Goose.
“And no one can understand her, they don’t understand why she stands in the garden and looks at the sky, or is so interested in birds.”
Brendan writes plays for adults as well as children, and retains the same approach for both.
“The last thing I ever want to do is write a play that I think will be good for children. I want to write a play that I want to write, and I’m 58,” he says.
“I sometimes say my plays don’t have happy endings but they have healing endings. It’s about helping people through, especially children.
“You don’t want, ‘This is what happens and then you die!’ for four year olds. You want to give them some hope and optimism and a few laughs along the way.”
- Monday’s Child is at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, April 26 at 11am and 1.30pm
- Full details on the Theatre Royal website
- More theatre stories here