Bothered and Bewildered

May 26 2016 | By More

★★★★☆    Hugely affecting

Church Hill Theatre: Wednesday 25 – Saturday 28 May 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson

Combining laughter and tears, all utterly genuine, Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s production of Bothered and Bewildered at the Church Hill is thoroughly successful.

Gail Young’s first full-length play, Cheshire Cats, has already been produced with great distinction in Edinburgh, but this is the Scottish premiere of her second, dating from 2014.

Val Lennie and Anne Mackenzie. Photo Terry Railley

Val Lennie and Anne Mackenzie. Photo Terry Railley

Much like the aforementioned Cats, this combines drama and comedy around a serious theme. Here it is dementia, with the central character Irene gradually becoming a stranger to her daughters Beth and Louise.

Taking on such a new and little-known work could be seen as a brave step for EPT, but it is one that deserves to succeed wholeheartedly. The subject matter may put some off, and there can be no denying that it is difficult to watch at times, particularly for the huge and growing numbers of people who have personal experience of the issue.

However, there can be no doubt that it is a judicious and rewarding piece of work – serious without ever becoming melodramatic and humorous without being flippant.

The storyline also encompasses other mother-daughter relationships, secrets, storytelling, love and other vast swathes of human experience, but in a wholly manageable form. There are no easy answers, and it is all powered by a steely, human resilience that makes what can only be personal experience accessible to all. Anyone who has been in this situation will recognise much of it, but this comes from the piece’s universality rather than any glib observation.

realism, flashback and fantasy

That is not to say this is a perfect piece of work; it starts far from promisingly with huge amounts of exposition. However, it soon settles down into a very cleverly structured combination of present-day realism, flashback and fantasy – the latter exemplified by the figure of Barbara Cartland, who is a kind of ‘imaginary friend’ representing the mother, Irene’s, closed world, which is inaccessible to others.

Lynn Cameron, Stephanie Hammond and Anne Mackenzie. Photo Terry Railley

Lynn Cameron, Stephanie Hammond and Anne Mackenzie. Photo Terry Railley

The central character of Irene is played by Val Lennie, who is frankly nothing short of astonishing. The role demands an openness and rawness that exposes the actor emotionally and physically to a huge degree, and she succeeds triumphantly.

There are certainly moments where a less rigorous performer, and a less scrupulous company, could go for cheap laughs at the character’s expense, but this is entirely resisted by Lennie and the nuanced direction of Mike Brownsell. There are certainly laughs in the production – many of them of a very dark kind indeed – but they flow from the characters and are entirely deserved.

Similarly, Lynn Cameron and Anne Mackenzie are completely believable as the daughters. As written, they are perhaps a little unrealistic, being unalike in every way, but the performances are so emotionally grounded they overcome this.

heartbreakingly simple

Katie Johnston, in a dual role as the young Irene and granddaughter Shelley, is similarly impressive. The scene with Shelley and her grandmother is truly affecting. In emotional terms it is outdone only by an earlier, heartbreakingly simple piece of stage business featuring the younger Irene that is guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat. This simplicity crystallises the delicacy of so much of the production.

Bev Wright. Photo Terry Railley

Bev Wright. Photo Terry Railley

This restraint perhaps does not benefit Bev Wright’s Barbara Cartland. While it is a well timed, finely judged and funny performance, it is odd to see a fictional characterisation of a real person that is so underdressed, undermade-up and underplayed compared to the real thing. However, this is in keeping with Cartland’s ambivalent role here as Irene’s advisor; while she is not the object of derision, and may even comes across as sympathetic, it is never forgotten what a peculiar figure she was.

Other roles are much smaller, but still discharged with distinction. There is a real warmth and humanity to Pat Hymers’s policeman, while it is the disembodied voice of Mags Swan as a GP, more 1984 than NHS, that really sets the whole thing on its way after the awkward infodump of the first scene.

Those exposition scenes feature Stephanie Hammond as a consultant whose only role is to ask questions of the sisters in order to move the plot along, and it is to her great credit that she invests such an unpromising part with so much life. Kevin Edie brings charm and emotion to another dual role.

The stage is used very cleverly by Brownsell, with discrete acting areas set up in a way that is clever but never becomes formulaic. This is aided by Nigel Jarvis’s lighting, which – like Peter Horsfall’s sound – is unfussy and so effectively done it fails entirely to draw attention to how clever it actually is.

There is the odd moment where things go less smoothly, and at times the rhythm of the piece falters. While the taste and sensitivity on display is admirable, it threatens to smother some of the more emotional moments, which demand to be let off the leash just a touch. Overall, however, this is a triumphant effort.

Running time 2 hours (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 25 – Saturday 28 May 2016
Evenings: Wednesday to Friday at 7.30 pm;
Matinee: Saturday at 2.30 pm

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Comments (2)

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  1. Susan wales says:

    Enjoyed this production tonight. It was very moving.
    I occasionally struggled to hear words over background music/sounds but that was probably my hearing, not their projection.
    Well done EPT.

  2. Suzanne Senior says:

    I saw it this afternoon and it made me laugh and cry. I thought the performances were uniformly good. I didn’t have an auditory issue, but I was sitting near the front.