Louise Coulthard’s Cockamamy charts the slow deterioration of a mind – and, sadly but inevitably perhaps, a relationship too – with sensitivity, diligence and well-placed dark humour. Though a late attempt to subvert its (otherwise gentle) tone feels misconceived, and overall pacing requires attention, solid performances and astute observational writing make this smart portrait of dementia well worth a watch.
Degradation of the mind and memory may not be entirely unexplored territory on the London fringe scene, but Louise Coulthard’s Cockamamy approaches the subject with a refreshing diligence and sensitivity. Beyond charting of dementia’s symptoms and effect on relationships, Coulthard’s rich text actually weaves in exploration of other types of memory formation and loss. I loved Alice’s early throwaway line to her granddaughter, ‘You do remember her [an old family friend], don’t you?’, for example – an astute reference to how our capacity to ‘recollect’ is actually quite cyclical, from childhood to adulthood to elderliness (however we want to define it).
There’s something a tad ‘Wes Anderson’ about Ellie Loudon’s set: rooted in naturalism but fully embracing of the eccentricities that exist within it. Photos of a ‘life-well-lived’ cover surfaces, and cupboard doors swing open to reveal perfectly (symmetrically) stacked spam. I think the same could be said about writer Louise Coulthard’s – and performer Mary Rutherford’s – characterisation of Alice. An older woman who’s both immediately relatable to one’s own grandparents, but also pleasingly surreal. The bearer of a barminess and swagger, whose next moves really can’t be predicted. She’s genuinely exciting to watch.
In the role, Rutherford has a warm, vivacious and often electric performance quality – essential to avoid things slipping too far into tragedy at best, or melodrama at worst. The writer/actor duo get the balance right, I think. Though Alice lives in a world where time’s literally running out (she looks understatedly fearful as the clock counts down to zero on her favourite word-based C4 gameshow), acting decisions rarely feel gratitutously ‘tear-jerking’ or calculated. She’s far too three-dimensional for that. The same’s true for the writing: judiciously positioned dark humour stop the more uncomfortable scenes from feeling heavy-handed and exploration of the early stages of dementia in particular, as both characters face change and confusion, is sensitively handled.
Pacing is a slight issue though, at least in this manifestation at the Hope Theatre. There’s too much avoidable coming and going for one – causing losses in momentum and frustrating gaps between action. The company aren’t helped by a problematically windy route to the wing, but I see little reason why this always needed to be used. There’s no need – for instance – for Rosie to escort her grandma out, if both characters are going to walk straight back in. Smarter ways exist to demonstrate the passage of time. The final 30-mins also drag somewhat; I see no reason why 15 minutes couldn’t be shaved off its duration to make it a) tighter and b) festival-ready.
Cockamamy‘s an unusually ‘tender’ and non-aggressive piece to see in a pub theatre in 2018 (I feel like I’ve become accustomed to chemsex, child porn and relentless trauma…) and I actually really liked it for that. So though I admire Coulthard’s attempt to subvert the tone towards the end (as I agree that perhaps without anything, there’s a risk of it being cutesy), the brief scene where anger overtakes the character of Rosie seems a little fleeting and laboured. As does the cactus metaphor – I’m not sure I still understand what, or who, it (and the vast quantites of water poured over it) was supposed to represent…
Nevertheless, really solid performances are on display here – from Coulthard and Rowan Polonski, as Rosie’s (conveniently-well-informed-about-Dementia) doctor boyfriend, too. There’s a lovely flair to the writing, and a noticeable truth to it too – it comes as no surprise that Coulthard’s own relationship with her grandma is cited as inspiration for the piece. Bolder direction would make its pacing far tighter, and the ‘pillow’ moment needs fixing or binning, but they are small groans in an otherwise very satisfying piece.