Anywhere but Shady Meadows!
There is something very disconcerting watching Isla Adamson and Josephine Stewart -Tewhiu play elderly characters in their devised Fringe play Chalk. These gorgeous young performers transform and contract their bodies in such a believable way that the characters have a sense of the uncanny.
Welcome to Shady Meadows Retirement home. A commercial voice over tells us all the great activities and facilities the home has, and how they encourage their residents to reach their “human potential”… meanwhile two of the elderly residents sit firmly chair bound with little to do. Isla and Josephine play multiple characters including the elderly residents, the workers, and younger visitors.
They switch between these characters with ease, aided by Abigail Greenwood’s direction. The audience favourite is Nina, a proud Maori grandmother with a warm humour, who packs her bags every day, convinced that her family is going to come and get her. She shares her scenes with Josephine’s Alice - her grandmother, who wants only to see her elder grand-daughter and not Alice, has dementia (painfully moving). Nina and Alice strike up an unlikely friendship and help each other deal with life and absent families. Isla and Josephine produce performances that are full of humour, heart, and integrity.
Unlike their previous work Ruby Tuesday, which was a huge hit for the inaugural Fringe festival, this piece isn’t as continuously laugh out loud funny. This is no criticism, for this work deals with some pretty deeply felt universal fears: aging, abandonment, losing your sense of self. Most of the humour arrives organically from the character’s personalities and their situation, the ‘overtly’ funny and shallower characters like Shady Meadows workers Clint (Isla) and the immature Karen (Josephine) are less successful, though they have their moments. I feel there is more material to be explored with the workers, particularly how dealing with elderly and frequent death affects their emotional lives. The announcement towards the end of the play poignantly farewells one of the residents that died that day, but cheerfully welcomes the next person who is moving into the vacated rooms the following day.
The elderly frequently ask how their families could have left them there. Retirement living is a fraught debate, and Isla and Josephine pull it off with deep sensitivity. At my more tender age, it certainly bought up stuff for me that I know is inevitable, but don’t actively engage and think about. In this respect, the play absolutely succeeds; exploring these big issues in a gentle way without trivialisng them.
I enjoyed spending time at the Shady Meadows Retirement home and with these characters. Chalk is a deeply felt play that leaves me both hopeful about the aging process, and also thoroughly terrified!
Chalk plays as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival at the Basement Theatre until 6th March.
More information at the Auckland Fringe Website.