I have been very lucky to never personally encounter dementia but, as I get older, the fear that it may one day hit me is increasing. Moments when I just can’t remember a word while writing or talking or I walk into a room and forget why, happen and I wonder are they just the vagaries of old age or is something worse in the offing? As a theatrical theme, dementia doesn’t seem to be that popular. Until now, I’ve seen only one play covering the subject, David Hendon’s Banana Crabtree Simon. However, that number has doubled following a visit to the Jack Studio Theatre for Splinter by Martha Loader.
Maggie (Henri Merriam) and Jac (Sarah Livingstone and Caroline Rippin) have been together for a long time. They first met when was caught sticking a homemade blue plaque commemorating a member of the suffragette movement to Jac’s newly purchased house. And over the years, their relationship has blossomed. Dating, moving in together, getting married. Everything in the garden is rosy. Until Maggie starts to forget things. Little things at first but as time goes by her memory deterioration starts to speed up. As Jac tries to help her partner, the relationship becomes strained to the point where something just might snap. Martha Loader worked closely with the Alzheimer’s Society when writing Splinter, and the research really has paid off. There are elements to the play and Maggie and Jac’s increasingly desperate attempts to overcome the spread of dementia that would never have occurred to me. There is also a wonderful, if frightening, explanation of how dementia affects memory using the analogy of a bookcase that really increased my knowledge. However, Splinter isn’t just a series of press releases from the AS, it is also a very human story of two people who meet, fall in love, and go through a truly horrible event together, and it’s lovely. Maggie and Jac’s story together is really sweet and romantic, but not in a treacle syrup way. I can’t really go into details but there is an excellent reason why Jac is played by two actors that really works with the narrative.
All the actors are first rate and they make Maggie and Jac both very human and believable. I have to say that seeing Merriam with Livingstone and seeing Merriam with Rippin, I could easily believe they were a couple. Maggie’s descent from a free-wheeling radical feminist to someone whose cognitive abilities have deserted her is beautifully played out and heartbreaking to watch.
Director Amy Wyllie has kept the set very simple – just a window, door and multifunction bookcase/wall – and gives the actors a lot of space to move and tell the story. With a running time of just over an hour without an interval, the play moves along at a nice pace. To my mind, it could have been a little bit longer so that we observed how the disease progressed more, and there was a point where I started wondering if Jac was having similar problems to Maggie, but that was more about me not picking up what was happening straight away rather than anything else.
Splinter is a well-researched and extremely well-written play that takes the audience into an uncomfortable place from which happy endings rarely if ever occur. But, thanks to the quality of the writing and the cast, Maggie and Jac’s story was something I will remember for a very long time.
Review by Terry Eastham
Maggie is an impulsive free spirit and would like to stay that way. But when her life collides with Jac’s, a whole world of new possibilities opens and she finds a stability she didn’t know she needed.
But life takes a different turn when Maggie and Jac are forced to face the fact that an early onset Dementia diagnosis is going to change the shape of their lives forever. Maggie has never needed anybody before and the relationship starts to fracture as both try to hold on.
From Play Nicely Theatre and written by Martha Loader, Splinter is about love and memory and what happens when you start to lose both.
by Martha Loader
directed by Amy Wyllie
presented by Play Nicely Theatre
Tuesday 28 November – Saturday 2 December 2023