When the play’s the thing to help us talk about Alzheimer’s


An actor sits in an armchair on a makeshift stage. People wander in, some elderly, many middle-aged and a few who look to be in their 20s. The actor, partly covered in a blanket, rocks slightly, staring at and wringing her hands. “Puh … puh …. puh,” she says. It’s Connie. This is no ordinary theatre. This is Newbury library at 7pm on a Wednesday. Some, oblivious to the waiting play, talk and exchange books. Most stay to watch the performance.

Emily, Connie’s daughter, appears when there’s a full audience of around 35 people. “Hi mum, it’s me,” she says. Kissing Connie on the head, she talks about her first TV cooking show and looks through a large book. “There’s a recipe of your rock cakes in here,” Emily says. “Here we are, Connie’s rock cakes … gosh 1987.” It’s Connie’s memory book. She has dementia.

The play, Connie’s Colander, follows Emily’s visit to her mother, a retired domestic science teacher who has Alzheimer’s. As they reminisce while Emily explains how she’s bringing her mother’s recipes to the show, we see how their relationship has evolved during Emily’s life and Connie’s illness.

Gaye Poole, an actor and former psychiatric nurse, wrote the play after being moved by her nursing experiences. She wanted to help people feel less isolated in the face of mental illness.

“I wrote Connie from my experiences of doing reminiscence drama in nursing homes and day centres and seeing more people with dementia and being fascinated with each individual’s journey through this fog,” Poole says.

“My experiences as a nurse come into play often when I remember being the helpless bystander to patients’ and their families’ exposure to suffering, both mental and physical. All this is so frequently behind closed doors. It is so important that we open up these issues and theatre does this.”

Connie’s Colander is the latest production by Human Story Theatre, an Oxford-based theatre company and charity set up by Poole, who plays Connie and Amy Enticknap, who plays Emily, to tour accessible, innovative plays to help communities with health and social care issues. The play is HST’s first production to have a national tour. Funded by Art’s Council England, Connie’s Colander visited 18 libraries across the south-east and now more than 75 libraries, community venues and hospitals are keen to book the company next year, says Enticknap.

Other library and community-space performances include: Flat 73 which tackles loneliness and isolation, The Fourth Dog about the importance of breast checking, while DRY deals with the impact of excessive alcohol consumption. “We chose libraries for the plays because we wanted to get to people who might otherwise feel a theatre performance was alien or might not be able to afford it,” Enticknap says. “Libraries can provide a calm, intimate space unlike many other community spaces. It’s very hard not to notice people’s reactions, such as laughing and sobs. We are sharing the experience with the audience, not just acting in front of them. We often get post-show hugs from members of the public saying ‘you reminded me so much of myself with my dad/mum/wife/husband’.”



Human Story Theatre’s Connie’s Colander. Photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Sue Williamson, libraries director at Arts Council England, says: “An awful lot of people who are interested or touched by these issues don’t feel safe in a theatre, but they do feel comfortable in their local library.’

During the play, flashbacks to Emily’s childhood with her mother focus on a TV cooking show. Emily recalls the best part of cooking as a child: “Mum let me knead the dough.” Connie continues with the recipe: “Top with the sultanas, candied peel and the … curate.” Emily corrects her: “Currants.” A poignant sign of what’s to follow.

The sensitivity in Enticknap and Poole’s interpretation of such a well-observed script touches many memories of my own mother’s dementia. Even down to the cooking together and tasting the cake mix. It’s painful and funny to watch, and ultimately the recognition is reassuring, even comforting. The rest of the audience clearly make their own connections.

The play is likely to resonate widely at a time when 850,000 people, one in six people over the age of 80, has dementia in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. And the numbers are expected to rise to more than one million by 2025 and two million by 2051. The charity says 225,000 will develop dementia this year.

After the show, in a Q&A with Dr Marion Lynch, a dementia expert who works with HST and deputy medical director for NHS England South, she couldn’t praise the company’s work enough: “Connie gives us permission to laugh and cry about our own situation, the roles lost and responsibilities gained when living with dementia, and notice that we are not alone.” More of this would lead to “a different view on what it is to grow old and care for those who need our help”.

Poole agrees: “The shows enable conversations between people wondering about a diagnosis, family members, carers, professionals. It’s easier to broach the subject with this ‘fiction’.”



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