(or, staging memory in Fancy Another?'s Shaping Dust.)
I have a globe on my bookshelf.
It looks like an antique but it’s made of plastic with a vintage, yellowing design charting the courses of famous explorers. Francis Drake and Columbus. Drawings of ships with taut rigging and military submarines.
It was a gift from my grandpa from when I was a kid. It has a bulb inside that glows through the countries with this orange burn that tricks peripherals into thinking my room is on fire.
When I was 10, I learnt about the supervolcano under Yellowstone. I found out that if it erupts, it could be the end of us all. I turned the globe so that the Americas faced my wall and all I could see was the horn of Africa from my bed.
It only speaks when necessary. In a voice like from an old person. But one who you’re surprised by how young their voice sounds. It reminds me of where I’ve come from and where I’m going.
Last week, its bulb blew.
Back in February, I was invited to see Fancy Another’s debut production, Shaping Dust, at The Cockpit. The piece is an expansion of a 20-minute short play, with the rest of the script mostly devised by the cast through improv and other exercises. We follow Emma, an elderly woman living with mid-to-late stage Alzheimer’s, and the thought process she goes through on her last day at home before she’s moved into care.
So initially, I was worried. I’ve seen and read a lot of plays dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s and a lot of them fall a bit flat for me. Most – for obvious reason – focus around memory and loss of identity. And while this is reflected in the writing, it rarely carries through to the form of the rest of the play. We just skip back and forth, flashing back and forward when the writer feels like we need to see a certain scene.
But memories don’t quite work like that.
They’re hard to grab and easily manipulated. Somebody told me one time that every time we remember something, we’re only remembering the last time we remembered it, not the original memory. I’m not sure if that’s true – even a bit, it doesn’t sound very scientific – but it does a good job of explaining how they feel.
And that’s what Shaping Dust does that all the other plays didn’t do.
It doesn’t just show us the memories, it shows us memory. It attempts to stage the process of remembering something, as opposed to just playing out a scene like a video clip that we can press play on whenever we want. It feels like a tangible procedure, and we begin to think of it as one. So when Emma’s memory starts failing her, it’s not the memories themselves that are broken, it’s her biological ability to recall them.
I have a cuddly giraffe on top of my printer.
His name is Batik (after the orangey pattern on his skin) and he was a gift from my boyfriend from his holiday.
His voice is high-pitched, he has tall ossicones with tassels and one floppy ear.
I have a cuddly triceratops in a bird cage.
He is bright yellow and I bought him with my Waterstones staff discount. Fished him out of a display so he couldn’t be chewed by toddlers.
He has a kind, deep voice. He quite likes living in the birdcage.
I have a fake parrot perched on top of the birdcage.
Her name is Polka and she is blue and yellow with inquisitive eyes and a curved beak. Her long, faux tail feathers tuck just behind a few hardbacks.
Her voice is nasal. Commanding and austere with a slight lisp. She watches the door.
Shaping Dust puts memory onstage through the objects associated with different moments in Emma’s life. Her strict but slightly absent mother Patricia is represented by a puppet constructed from one of her pink frilly smocks and the actor’s own arms. The similarly distant father of her daughter is represented in the same way by a plain shirt; these are characters who’ve fallen into the blurs of Emma’s memory. They are their disembodied clothes and the words they say, but never their faces. When Emma is a young child, her furniture comes to life and speaks to her, Beauty and the Beast-style. It’s charming and tactile and ghostly. The actors melt away and it’s just a chair talking.
And the brilliance of the puppets is matched by their puppeteers, the whole cast piloting around these characters with ease and grace. There are subtle movements, like breath or twitches, that you catch every once and a while and invite us even further into Emma’s mind. We can gauge who the person is, even imagine what they probably look like, but like Emma we can only half-see.
And we can’t talk about puppets without mentioning The Little Girl. A teensy tiny thing who, unlike the other memory characters, isn’t represented by an object. She is a thing all of her own. A mannequin in a little dress. Initially, this choice bothered me; why was this puppet not represented by an object like all the others? But it did the job it was meant to – it made the Little Girl stick out as something artificially created for a reason, rather than repurposed like the others. And then we learn why she’s like that. And it all makes sense. And I loved it. She is perhaps the best piloted puppet in the production: curious and sweet and sinister all in one. She clops around in Emma’s big red heels and you can’t help but fall in love.
I have hundreds of books piled up around my room.
There are five stacks at the end of my bed all the way up to the lip of the mattress.
I have a bookshelf built in behind my bed where I keep my favourites from when I was a kid. Harry Potter. Percy Jackson. A collection: different editions of Alice in Wonderland.
There is a new IKEA bookshelf by the door. It’s white and made from cubes that have enough room for three rows of books stacked behind each other so you can’t see the spines at the very back. It’s impractical but practical. And still isn’t enough room.
I have more little stacks on my chest of drawers and on my desk. Ones I got halfway through reading then gave up when I decided to power through the end of Murakami’s 18Q4.
I probably have too many. But I had my aforementioned Waterstones staff discount for over a year. So who can blame me?
They’re messy and loud and chatter when I’m trying to concentrate. They’re a bit annoying actually. But I still want to keep them. Just in case.
The acting is similarly excellent. Emma Nihill’s performance as the elderly Emma has a captivating, childlike wonder to it, like she’s been ripped out of an Enid Blyton. Young actors playing old has the tendency to feel a bit contrived, so Nihill’s plodding daintiness – capturing the youthful elements of Emma – is a clever decision. Emma’s younger selves are similarly well-drawn: Katherine Lea’s depiction of Young Emma is charming, fizzy and human as she takes us from Emma’s childhood to the moment she learns she’s pregnant, always feeling like we’re watching the same person… just a bit older. Jasmine Raymond (who also impresses as Patricia, Emma’s mother) is handed the baton next, after Emma gives birth. Raymond captures a different side to Emma, this one wounded and mature and clever. While initially I worried that the cast was switching actors for the sake of it, Raymond convinced me otherwise through her utterly captivating take. It added a depth to Emma that one actor alone couldn’t provide, as well as marking the massive shift that happens to her once she becomes a mother.
Tina Rizzo appears as Melissa, the wife of Emma’s daughter Alice, in a down-to-earth but complicated performance. Her energy brings light to a scene when she enters, something a play with this bleak(ish) subject matter really needs. Anna-Rose van der Wiel almost steals the show as Louise, Emma’s childhood penpal from France (she also takes on numerous minor roles, each with its own distinct affectations. The girl has range!) Even in relatively small roles, her performances are charmingly captivating; you sit up a little straighter in your chair when she comes onstage. Ellen McLeod completes the cast in an intensely-sensitive performance as Alice, who the play is kind of actually about. If this play was a creature, then McLeod would be the heart. She keeps its pulse going, gently and quietly, but powerfully. She has some great choices – little looks and facial expressions that say everything she needs to say – that make her really fun to watch. Unfortunately, her character suffers a little due to the story wanting to do a big reveal that Alice is Emma’s daughter a bit later in the plot, with her relationship with Emma being left ambiguous for the first half. I found myself wanting to see more of McLeod, for her character to be allowed to have a bit more depth from the beginning, rather than it all coming right at the end.
I have a cat bed by my door.
It hasn’t been here long. Only a month. It used to sit by the radiator under the window in my sister’s room. (My sister is the cat’s favourite.) But she moved out in January and the cat has been sleeping in my room ever since.
It’s a little grey tent that is soft and warm. When I look at it properly, I think about how much I’d like to be small enough to curl up inside it.
The cat has a nicer bed than I do, I say, my sister says, my other sister says.
It has a quiet voice. Sometimes the cat snores and you can’t hear what it’s saying at all. But at night, when the cat is silent and dreaming, it whispers bedtime stories and lullabies about all the places the cat probably goes when she’s awake.
The main issue with the piece is precisely what is so brilliant about it: the devised aspect allows for a freshness, originality, and unpredictability. But it also means that the structure of the play suffers slightly. It feels like a chatter of multiple voices. And in some areas, that works incredibly well, but when it comes to the script and structure, it feels a little disparate, with a couple of thematic lines not quite being wrapped up. There are hints, for example, that Emma herself is queer and had some sort of relationship with her penpal. There is a distinct tension between them that feels like more than just friends and Emma’s mother bursting in and angrily interrupting their play felt like a bit of queer subtext that never gets expanded on. Perhaps it was because Alice is a queer character, perhaps it was my own queer perspective wanting to make more of this, but it felt like an incomplete thread.
The order of scenes, while intelligently done in some places, could also perhaps be given another look over. We see the ‘flashback’ moments more or less in the order they happened, which felt inconsistent with the script being structured around Emma happening upon objects and remembering things associated with them. Perhaps seeing the past scenes in a more jumbled order would also allow us to get more from Alice earlier on, if we know from a flashback scene early on that Emma is a mother.
But all in all, Shaping Dust is almost a feat of engineering. They have managed to take memory and stage it so tangibly through these objects that I found myself sitting on the train home, having a chat in my head to the ephemeral bits and bobs that’ve cropped up at different points of my life. Wondering what my Year 2 teacher would look like if piloted by these puppeteers.
There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a new, young company hit the ball out of the park so successfully on their first go. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.
I have a battered tin on my bookshelf. I bought it from a charity shop about six years ago. It has a design of an old naval ship on it smashing through white waves.
In it, I keep treasures. The treasures that can fit, anyway.
Theatre tickets from shows I loved. The wristband from my uni leaver’s ball. A joke from an old Christmas cracker I wanted to keep for some reason. And the paper crown that went with it.
It’s so stuffed with stuff that its voice is muffled like its talking with its mouth full. Its hinges squeak when it says something.
But I love when it talks. Its voice is my favourite.
Thank you so much to the Fancy Another? team for inviting me to review your production!
Shaping Dust ran at The Cockpit from 11th-15th February 2020.
Illustrated, as always, by my marvellous friend, Jem Venn.