“When I see myself in shop mirrors, I know I’m old.” Grandma rubs her knee as she talks. “The way I look. The way I walk.” She’s wearing a new, blue summer dress and pulls it down to cover more of her leg. “You suddenly look up and you think, who’s that funny old woman?” She looks out the window. “They ought to kill us all off around 72.”
My grandma is called Beryl but all my friends call her Grandma. She is my only surviving grandparent, and the only one I’ve ever properly known or liked. When I was younger she would make up stories, read me books and sing me songs. She’s been a nurse, a teacher, a headteacher, a nanny, a friend and a nag. Every time we say goodbye, she says: “I love you more than all the stars in the sky.” All the pinecones in the forest. All the books in the library. All the flowers in the garden.
Grandma is 84 and increasingly forgetful. She is sharp (though the edges are softening) funny (though the joke is sometimes lost) and kind (still, unfailingly so). She is slowing down, and on average takes three attempts to get out of a chair. Over the years she has perfected an intense Paddington-esque stare that gets her any answer she wants; she should have been a journalist.
“So what are you?” she asks, leaning forwards to inspect Jon Haynes, one half of unconventional theatre company Ridiculusmus. “I mean, what is your job?”
Haynes leans back, laughs. “Good question.” He and his creative partner, David Woods, have been making theatre for 27 years – “not quite as old as Forced Entertainment, but we’re one of the oldest.” They’re about to start touring their latest show – Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! – around the UK, beginning at Battersea Arts Centre, our local theatre. I told Grandma I was going to be interviewing them and asked if she’d like to join me.
Ridiculusmus’ work is usually physical, often absurd and tends to be described as “seriously funny” for its use of comedy in dealing with dark subjects. Die! is the final part of their mental health trilogy, following Give Me Your Love and The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland.
Grandma nods along as Haynes explains how he and Woods make work for the stage – starting with improvisation (“it comes from something emotional”) and building up – then she cuts in. “I prefer cinema.” He stops, laughs again. “Yeah, me too actually. Going to the theatre is like going to work. It’s very difficult to switch off and just enjoy it.”
Die! plays with ageing, death and grief through surrealist physical comedy, focusing on the relationships between three extremely elderly people – they’re in their 120s – with Haynes multi rolling as two of them. The title’s exclamation marks lend the show a sense of morbid glee, well suited to the company’s absurdist roots – they started devising together at The Poor School in the 90s. When I tell Grandma the show’s title, she laughs, but it’s been so provocative that BAC’s posters have cut off the last three words, keeping it instructionally generic for everyone rather than specifically aiming at killing off Clapham’s OAPs. “It’s a fact,” Haynes shrugs simply, “Old people die.”
“You don’t think you’re ever going to get old.” Grandma has told me that she still feels 17 inside, that her thirties were the best years, and that she used to think someone was old at 60, but that marker’s gone up since she passed it. We had to spend a few minutes figuring out how old she was going to be this year, adding up the decades on her fingers. When she asks Haynes “how old is old?”, she does so without having a complete answer herself, but is roughly able to pinpoint the slowly growing list of things that made her realise her own cumulation of years. “I think I’m old,” Haynes replies. He has just turned 58, making him 26 years younger than Grandma and 36 years older than me, but I wouldn’t call him old; I wouldn’t offer him a seat on the tube. “I’m in the second half of my life,” he explains. “I’m getting aches and pains in strange new places and worrying about them, thinking: is that my heart?” Maybe old age is something self-prescribed. I did a placement in a care home and one of my favourite residents, who was 94, asked how old another resident was. 80, she replied shyly. Oh! – he was thrilled – you’re a spring chicken!
Grandma leads the interview in one of the upstairs offices at BAC. It takes us a while to get there; I can remember her climbing mountains, but now her movements are more of a shuffle. Tomorrow, when I warn her about a building with lots of steps, she’ll say “but I managed yesterday!”, and I’ll remind her that we took the lift.
This change in speed is one of the markers of age, and Ridiculusmus take it to an extreme in Die! “Part of the story is how the old couple are going to get from the door to the table. At one point I was suggesting the show should just be that – are they going to make it to the table?” “And do they?” Grandma asks. “I don’t want to spoil it for you,” Haynes says seriously. He talks quickly and quietly, with little chuckles at the ends of sentences, often turning the questions back on us. “But we stretch everything to limits. The way we walk on, it’s so slow, it’s absurd, you know? It takes five minutes to put a handbag on a table. We move at the pace of turtles mating.”
The comedy is in these detailed extremities, elongated actions and miniscule movements. He likens it to relief theory, releasing energy when you’re not meant to be laughing, like “how people laugh at funerals.”
They wanted to get rid of the taboos that cloak the end of life. The show’s original title was “Complicated Grief,” which stemmed from hearing about psychiatrists proposing that a condition of the same name should be included in the American Bible for psychiatric disorders. It would determine how long a grieving period should be, what it should look or feel like; normal or abnormal. This felt too clinical for Ridiculusmus, not allowing space for a creative, emotional response. “We wanted to wrestle grief back from the scientists.”
Part of the show looks at how other cultures deal with grief, because “we’re not very good at that here.” Haynes’ mother died when he was 22. “We had the usual reaction, the default English stiff upper lip. We never shared, nobody spoke about it. There was never a moment when we just all let it out and hugged each other.” In Die! one of the characters passes away and another becomes locked in a performance of grief, so keening music – a traditional vocal lament for the dead – is used to coax them out of it. Humour and sadness go hand in hand throughout, the absurdities of life and death in a constant slow-dance. Then, during the rehearsal process for this show, David Woods’ father died. They took a break. “If [grief] was ever funny, it stopped being funny then.”
After a pause in rehearsals, they’re back to finding the humour. “Maybe it’s our sensibility as comic performers. We like it when audiences laugh. It’s very hard for a performer to read tears, but a laugh is easy. David’s always saying that he’s addicted to laughter, and not just to getting that response but to sharing in it.”
Grandma has always made me laugh – not at, but with her – and whenever friends came round from school she’d joke and dance and teach them little songs (No matter how young a prune may be/ He’s always full of wrinkles/ We may get them on our face/ Prunes get ’em every place). She’s always been incredibly social, and will talk to strangers on public transport, in cafes and queues. When we make a list of questions to ask Haynes, top of the list is: “Is there sex in it?” (there isn’t).
The night before the interview, Grandma and I talk about ageing. The best bits: “Most people are very nice to you. Especially young men in Sainsbury’s. And I still have good years because of you three.” And the worst: “All my good friends have died, and I miss them.” And, even though I know this isn’t true, it guts me that she says: “You walk into a party knowing no one wants to talk to you. They look to someone who can be of use to them.”
“Do you feel old mentally?”
“When you talk about things I don’t understand. And I forget things.”
“How does that feel?”
“As if I’m not a person anymore.”
“I’m not sure whether the fear of old age is actually replacing the fear of death,” says Haynes. “But we’re living longer because of the advances in science and we’re all worried about what old age is going to be like if they really prolong our lives. Moaning all the time, taking so many pills. Sometimes you wonder is it really worth it, being kept alive that long?” Would you want to live until you’re 120? “No,” Grandma is firm. “You wouldn’t have anyone to talk to about your memories.” Haynes agrees. “I think it would be unbearable.”
The company has dealt with its fair share of loss. For nine years, Ridiculusmus was funded by the Arts Council. “It was some security, peace of mind.” Then in 2015, funding was pulled. Money from the Wellcome Trust for the mental health trilogy is starting to run out, and they have been forced to take a payment holiday. “I haven’t been paid in five months,” Haynes admits. “I’m living on savings.” The show is in the British Council’s Edinburgh showcase this year – “that’s a good thing” – but the future is dependent on what grants they’re able to secure. “So yeah,” he clears his throat. “It’s tough.” Around the same time as losing their funding, fire gorged on Battersea Arts Centre. It left the Grand Hall’s roof as ash and ate up much of the building. Ridiculusmus had an office here, and all but one box of their belongings was burnt. These losses have fed into the current show. “In a way that’s what we do; I’m not saying it’s a protest against loss but the work itself is made from losses – from failures and deficits – [patched up] for entertainment purposes.”
“If we’re saying anything,” Haynes concedes, “we’re saying, well, rather than avoid talking about it, let’s laugh at these things. Not at the people. Laugh at our portrayal. Talk about this as much as possible.” The stage’s neat metaphor for life provides the perfect platform. “It’s there and then it’s gone.”
Grandma’s always hated wasting time. She’s finished her questions and puts on her teacher voice to tell Haynes to pack up and go. He says it’s nice being interviewed by her, by someone with wisdom and experience. “Nonsense,” Grandma bats the compliment away, wrinkling her nose. “You don’t get cleverer as you get older. You just get sillier.”
Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! is on at Battersea Arts Centre from 8th to 25th May. More info and tickets here.