Mid Life pretends for a little bit to be a solo show. As the lights go down we start to hear Claire’s story of her mid life experiences – juggling running a company, raising a child, and the day to day work of living a life, while getting more tired, more stressed and more lost. The experiences she describes sound familiar – an experience of a woman’s middle age that, if not universal, is at least recognisable to most people, whether from media or their own lives. But Mid Life breaks apart and examines this image, fracturing it to better hold it up to the light – as Claire talks she is interrupted, first by audio describer Karen and then by BSL interpreter Jacqui, as they argue with her views, share their own experiences and, finally, support each other.
While this set up – of a one woman show cracking and growing as under-acknowledged collaborators insert themselves into the narrative – could easily feel contrived, it is made utterly convincing by the energy and charisma of the performers. Their little squabbles and struggles and asides are funny and heightened in a way that makes them feel more believable than if they were realistic – the fact that we are all in on the conceit means we can focus more on enjoying the ride, on really listening to what each performer has to say.
By centring a single narrative at first before splitting it, the show does several things. It points out how often disparate experiences are smoothed into one image, making it easier to gloss over and think of as the same old story over again. It notes how often these dominant narratives are usually from the most privileged perspective. But best of all it not only introduces us to two more viewpoints, but makes us constantly aware that there are so many more out there, a sense which is only increased as the show goes on – I almost felt at one point that through the show each person in the audience would suddenly stand and join in, until I was the only one left sitting.
The core of the show is the relationships and tensions between these three women. While hearing each of their experiences is insightful and moving, it is in revealing the similarities and differences, both personal and institutional, between them that makes the show sing. We see how middle age and approaching the menopause is affected by race and sexuality and class, by health and caring responsibilities. We see how for some it can bring worries that their best years are behind them, while for others they finally have a freedom that brings them joy. We see decreased sex drives and sexual liberation. And every detail adds to a tapestry that makes no claims to universality but still reaches out to the audience, whether they are in their own mid life or not – calling on common fears of our own changing selves, frustrations about things never said, horror at the thought that one day we won’t be able to call our mums to make it all better.
Weaving amongst the action is Kandaka Moore, a clown-ish figure gently manipulating the others onstage, unseen and unacknowledged, forcing them to confront what they try to avoid, or drawing out their narratives, through playful movement and beautiful song. She is often also central to moving the story forward, and navigating between discrete sections, and despite Moore’s deft hand, this is often where the show falters. After the dramatic forward momentum of the initial blossoming of different viewpoints the show becomes episodic in a way which doesn’t quite flow.
But what maintains our investment in it always is that Mid Life is filled with a feeling of genuine and sincere love, both for those onstage and in the audience, that many shows aim for but few manage to create.
Mid Life runs at the Barbican, London, from 19th-22nd February, before returning to Bristol Old Vic from 4th-8th March. More info here.