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By John O'Donoghue

piece of art, depicting a bald man with eyes front and a detached mouth

Artwork for the Dementia Diaries

Dementia Diaries recently came to Brighton as part of a national tour that has taken place in Edinburgh, London and Liverpool. I first saw the play at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, back in February, and reviewed it for the Guardian. How, I wondered, has the production developed since those early performances?

The evening was hosted by Brighton and Sussex Medical School as part of their Ethics In Performance season. In front of a packed audience of medical students, clinicians, carers, and members of the public at the Sallis Benney there was a performance of the play and a Q & A afterwards.

Dementia Diaries comprises a series of monologues spoken by Tata and Mama, who both have dementia; their son, Edzio; their unnamed Daughter; and Mrs Alicja, their Polish carer. The characters never speak to one another, but talk instead to the audience. Music accompanies these monologues, and I was struck by how much the play itself is like a piece of music.

Take the way the characters speak. The Daughter addresses the audience as if reading from her diary: ‘Slept badly again. Two calls with Mama and Tata, spoke to both am, then Mama wanted to speak to me again in the evening.’ Edzio, the son, has an obsession with hygiene: ‘The eggs of parasites are found in [foxes’] faeces… Larvae… enter the human intestine where they harbour for some years before destroying the organism from within.’ Mrs Alicja, the carer, finds the whole ménage very strange. And Mama and Tata both suffer aphasia, which can make their speech a little surreal: ‘I’ve never been the depressive type, well not on Wednesdays because you don't get any rattlesnakes and they're what trips you up.’ (Mama)

Each character is like a different instrument, making a different sound. Certain motifs also recur throughout the play, like themes in a piece of music. Take the fox. To Edzio the fox is a health hazard. Mrs Alicja is so shocked by seeing the fox she drops a vase. Mama knows all about the fox - a vixen that’s feeding three clubs behind the shed. That’s why she keeps ham in her handbag. For Tata the fox triggers memories of the war. And for the Daughter seeing the fox evokes a sense of wonder.

The play is like a piece of chamber music, and transcends at times the literalness of language: ‘Shall I sing you a table?’ says Mama. We may not always make out meaning, but we can sense the emotion behind the lines.

In the Question and Answer session afterwards a panel of clinicians, carers, and representatives from Age Concern and the Alzeihemer’s Society discussed the issues thrown up by the play.

Chaired by Dr Sue Eckstein, Lecturer in Clinical and Biomedical Ethics at BSMS, Dr Julie Wright, a Consultant in Elderly Medicine, told the audience that diagnoses of Dementia are on the increase. This has to do with a number of factors: an ageing population, greater awareness by clinicians of what was a ‘Cinderella diagnosis’ forty years ago, and the work of the National Dementia Strategy.

Ellen Jones spoke movingly about caring for a loved one with condition. There was much in the play she responded to: the repetition that can characterise the speech of people with dementia, the apparently random shifts in the illness, the way family members can be faced with sudden crises.

Sophie Mackrell of the Alzheimer’s Society spoke of the work of Dementia Champions, people with the condition who speak in public about the effects of the disease, and said it would be good for the production to try and include them in future panel discussions. This sounded very useful.

Mark Hewitt said that he hoped the play could be filled Talking Heads style for future use. And with that the evening was over and we made our way out into the night.

Dementia Diaries Tour Continues:
Telford Monday 14 November 2011, 2.00pm
Oakengates Theatre @ The Place, Telford
Limes Walk, Telford TF2 6EP, Shropshire
See  for details