‘We had joyful moments and a lot of fun’: real-life story inspires granddaughter’s play about dementia
- Credit: Norwich Theatre Royal
Writer-performer Louise Coulthard tells us about her acclaimed play Cockamamy, inspired by her experiences caring for her grandmother, which is coming to Norwich.
Alice and her granddaughter Rosie are a team. They live together, eat together and watch Countdown together. That is until things start to change.
Heart-warming razor-sharp play Cockamamy, which won the Lustrum Award for Outstanding Play at the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, examines companionship and the reality of living with dementia.
Perfectly scripted by writer-performer Louise Coulthard, who cared for her grandmother whilst she was living with dementia, it explores the incredible bond between a grandparent and grandchild.
The play is being performed at Stage Two at Norwich Theatre Royal on May 31 as part of the month-long Creative Matters: Caring for Dementia season.
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Far from a sentimental portrayal of decline, Cockamamy is an honest, funny and insightful exploration of the realities of living with this degenerative disease. But despite its subject matter, it is not bleak, finding the joy and funny moments in the relationship.
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The background to Cockamamy is the very personal story of caring for your grandmother who was living with dementia. Why did you want to write a play about it?
It started because at the time I realised that a lot of art and literature seemed to be responding to the heartache that dementia brings but I was caring for my Gran at the time who was living with dementia and, although it does bring with it a lot of heartache and hard times, at the same time me and my Gran were also forming many lovely memories together. So I started writing bits down that we were experiencing and I kind of ended up with a play quite soon. I trained as an actress so I always had a theatrical approach to things. I started in the September and finished in the February, but she died in the December, so my writing of it encompassed her death as well.
It could be quite a bleak subject but the show finds plenty of humour in the relationship…
I think it is really important to show the light alongside the dark. We were having a lot of joyful moments and a lot of fun together. A lot of those moments are what got me and my family through caring for my Gran. This show is partnered with the Alzheimer's Society and I've talked to them and they are really keen to encourage the idea that people can live well with dementia. It is not all terrible bleakness.
How closely based is the play to the relationship you had with your Gran?
It is quite closely based however because it is a play I allowed it to be more theatrical than I guess it was in real life. Some of the stories may have happened over years or be little snippet of stories but then I encompassed them all into one theme and narrative. However it is still very close. I'm from the Lake District, Gran always lived in the Lake District, it is set up north, so a lot of it is very accurate my experience and my life with her.
Did your Gran know you were writing the play?
I think I told her, but to be honest by the time that I'd started her dementia was quite advanced. She had lived with it for quite a few years. She was never able to read what I was writing a play about.
You also perform in the show playing the part of Rosie. Has it been odd playing a character based on yourself re-enacting this period with an actress [Mary Rutherford] playing Alice, a character based on your Gran?
It has. This is the third time we are doing it now and I've grown a lot, not only as an actress but as a person. The first time we did it, it was quite strange for me because she had died less than a year before. I think I was almost still going through a grieving process. However I made sure we had a really brilliant team and our director [Rebecca Loudon] was brilliant and she really worked with me on taking myself out of it. I think it is quite important to do that. It's good for me to think about it as a piece of art rather than as a story about myself in real life.
Is the stage set a replica of the real house you shared?
Not really. We have designer [Elle Loudon] and she was very particular about what she wanted, but it is all set within a living room. A lot of it is very cosy and homely - very granny-ish.
You initially turned to crowd funding to get the project off the ground. How did that come about?
We previewed at the Camden Fringe in 2016 and I crowd funded for that. It was brilliant because a lot of family friends got involved. My Grandma had lived in the Lake District her whole life and she had owned and worked in a village shop for many years, so a lot of people knew her or knew of her and really loved her as a lady. I was quite surprised by the amount of people who did donate. A lot of them I didn't even know, but they had heard about it on the radio and got in touch and sent cheques.
The show has been critically well received but what has been the reaction of audiences?
It's been really lovely. I was working in a pub when I wrote the play and I always thought of the locals in the pub as my audience because I was so aware that wanted it to be really down to earth. Not for the theatrical elite, but really just for people who had been affected or who had lost someone they loved. It is such a common thing. We have had such great responses from people who have both been a carer and some people who are living with dementia. We have also had a great response from people from a scientific background, medical researchers. I ended up going to do a talk at the Manchester Science Festival about arts and dementia because a lot of researchers said it is so refreshing to see a social artistic response to something that they look at under a microscope all day.
• Cockamamy is at Stage Two, Norwich Theatre Royal on May 31, 2.30pm/7.30pm, £12 (£10 cons), 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk