This house is a lost house; cobwebbed, dilapidated and dusty, it has been forgotten. The old woman who once lived here has disappeared but no one has come looking for her; she is remembered only by the house itself. The chimney, the wall and the floor are given physical form. Clad in Miss Havisham rags, simpering and mugging like Playschool presenters they pine for their lost owner. Slowly, using objects scattered around the abandoned house they piece together the life of the missing woman: they give her a name, a past, a story.
Maison Foo’s poignant if rather broad-brush production was inspired by the performers’ experiences of working with the elderly. There’s something very touching in the way the fragments of a person who has been diminished and eroded by dementia are pieced back together, making them whole, even if the company have saddled both the piece and themselves with an awkward and overly elaborate narrative framework. The performers spend a very long time establishing that it is the house itself that is telling the story: so we see the floor getting overexcited at the memory of the hoover, while the chimney alternates between soot-clogged coughing and minor flirtations with the front row.
The stagecraft is impressive, blending elements of clowning and physical theatre with puppetry, and there is something particularly satisfying in the way they utilise every prop to create a recognisable world: a balloon and a piece of fabric become a small child, a coat-stand becomes a dashing young suitor, a picnic blanket and a straw hat create a fleeting yet idyllic afternoon in the sun. But while these shards of memory, these glimpses into the past, are often genuinely moving, in the favouring of the archetypal over the specific, the production is self-limiting. Mrs Benjamin, the woman who is both the absence and the presence at the centre of the piece, is not so much an individual as a portrait of every aging person whose sun-flecked past has faded to grey.
While it’s well-intentioned (the company are touring the work in partnership with Dementia UK) and well-executed, there is something a little twee in its presentation. It’s at its strongest when exploring the cruelty of dementia, conveying a strong sense of bewilderment, decay and increasing distress, but the depiction of life leading up to this moment is more formulaic, the milestones obvious and the storytelling simple: courtship, marriage, bereavement. The method of telling is visually appealing but dramatically the piece is rather narrow, and while the concept of the house as narrator is a resonant one, it feels too blunt, too literal.
The strongest sequences are also the darkest and most jarring, scenes that elegantly evoke loneliness and decline in old age, social isolation and its consequences, but elsewhere the company rather hammer their point home in a way that teeters on the edge of being patronising. It’s when they unshackle themselves from this tendency and trust their material and their audience more, that the production’s considerable charms become clear.