Sundowning, written by Nessah Muthy and directed by Helena Bell, has been crafted with careful attention to detail. In Rajha Shakiry’s design, the sound of children laughing inches across floral wallpaper, with a distant ocean rushing across the surface of a beige carpet. Vintage lace curtains dance with warm and cool colours then clash, rising in waves like heat from asphalt. Two doors guard a large bed, its sheets caught in a browning blanket. An elderly woman floats face down in a pool of pillows, and with her, the audience sinks steadily into the action. However, this comfortable reverie is soon disrupted by the clipped tones of Alyssa (played by Aasiya Shah) and her aunt Teresa (Nadia Nadif), who greet each other defiantly.
As Teresa, Nadif’s eyebrows are knotted in a frown, her arms crossed over the belt of her dressing gown. In response, Shah’s character is ill at ease. Her return home from prison is fraught, and when she learns that her grandmother Betty (Hazel Maycock) has been committed to a nursing home, old furies bubble and spill over. Now riddled with Alzheimer’s disease, her beloved Nan drifts between large holes in her memory, swathed in cornflower blue. Without permission to visit, Alyssa creeps onto the ward during the night. She persists despite moments of faded recognition, answering repeated questions and rubbing soreness from aching limbs. This perseverance continues even through ‘sundowning’, a time of day characterised by intense anxiety or distress in dementia patients.
Doors slam and family tensions grow. A history is begging to creep into the present, with evidence of unhealthy coping mechanisms used by Shah’s character prior to her arrest. There are moments where her language is peppered with aggression, but this anger is continually soothed by the concern she feels for her grandmother. She carries a cassette player to the hospital and it blares timeworn songs – old favourites that trigger heart-warming frolics. It is in these moments where their relationship feels most authentic. Suddenly, everything that the family has lost is returned, including Alyssa’s late grandfather Jimmy (whom Alyssa impersonates to appease Betty).
Sundowning manages to balance the embarrassment and shame felt by the dementia sufferer with the desperation experienced by their carers. The strain on both parties is palpable, and Muthy does well to paint such a delicate sequence of events. Yet, while the narrative is playful, it is also exhausting. It burns slowly from the start, with episodes of incontinence and hostility made painful. Betty’s health continues to deteriorate, and with her decline, goes the pace of the performance. However, these marked lapses in Betty’s mental health are incredibly sad and Maycock’s commitment to the role is acute. Shah’s performance too, is impressive. Her words come out with sharp edges, attached to a quivering voice and eyes that are slick with salt. It is a shame then, that the production becomes increasingly murky in anticipation of its conclusion. Locations and individual affairs become muddied by a lack of clarity, giving the dialogue a slightly laboured quality. Perhaps this is a symptom of its subject matter. Nonetheless, the decline in pace does not detract from the intensity of the piece.
Sundowning is on at Tristan Bates Theatre till 3rd November. More information here.