Two Down Ten Letters
“Take Off Your Cornflakes,” by Pat Nolan and Rose Henderson, should come with a warning. At the very least it should stipulate ‘bring your own supply of tissues.’ Between tears when you want to laugh, and laughing when you want to cry, “Take Off Your Cornflakes” can be something of an emotional rollercoaster. On a more serious level, dealing with the theme of a middle aged couples response to Alzheimer’s disease, “Take Off Your Cornflakes” might bring up things for those whose lives have been, or currently are, afflicted by Alzheimer’s or similar illnesses. Not that “Take Off Your Cornflakes” should be avoided for that reason. On the contrary, “Take Off Your Cornflakes” knows that behind every illness there are people. And this is a story of two people. Flawed, overwhelmed, and in love in sickness and in health, “Take Off Your Cornflakes” follows the experiences of Trish and Tommy, good people in a bad place, as Alzheimer’s takes hold in what is one of the most sensitive, heartfelt, and uplifting shows of the festival.
Reminiscent of the 2001 movie “Iris,” staring Judi Dench, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent, “Take Off Your Cornflakes” follows something of the same format and structure, dropping linear narrative and weaving past and present like a rich, luscious layer cake. Busman, and later taxi driver, Tommy, the man with the ready joke always to hand, has been getting forgetful lately. Trish reckons it’s the stress that's got him into this state. As time passes and Tommy’s condition deteriorates, Trish has to adapt as her relationship shifts from wife to minder, lover to carer. Helpless as her partner becomes her patient, requiring her to have the patience of Job, Trish must face the transformation alone. With family away in San Francisco and Manchester, a son and daughter of the diaspora, Trish is left with phone calls, letters, and Skype calls for moral support. In the end it’s left to Trish to learn to agree, to divert, to distract, to reassure, and reminisce, over and over and over when Tommy needs it. Yet when the brain breaks down, love speaks up. Sometimes in every thing you do, other times in a brief moment of clarity.
In “Take Off Your Cornflakes” Alzheimer’s takes down both those who are leaving but never leave, and those who are left behind. It can be a nasty, messy, long drawn out affair. Yet “Take Off Your Cornflakes” doesn’t really engage with the nastiness. It skirts up to questions like euthanasia, of the lack of real supports for a middle-aged person left to care for their deteriorating loved one alone, but it doesn’t go beyond that point. Instead, it focuses on the people at the heart of the experience. If this risks seeming a little sanitized or sentimental, or romaticised even, it’s an inevitable by product. For language often struggles to overcome clichés when we attempt to say what we truly need to one another, as when we feel we want to kill the one we love, yet never let them go.
Director Liam Halligan does a neat job with a script whose ordinariness conceals some intense depths below. Keeping pace and emotion balanced right on the line, Halligan ensures “Take Off Your Cornflakes” may tipple in places, but it never fully topples into becoming a sentimental tearjerker. Video imagery by Kieran McBride, lighting by Colm Maher and music by Denis Clohesy reinforce Halligan's sense of the heartbreaking ordinariness of the experience. Pat Nolan is outstanding as the fun, life-loving Tommy, always telling a ridiculous joke, loving his wife and family more than anything, trying to hang on their memory by crosswords or memory games as his mind, and he, disappear. Indeed, Nolan just keeps getting better and better as Tommy gets worse, delivering a beautifully understated, heart wrenching performance. Ruth Henderson as Trish, a woman who never complains, hiding her pain, and her needs, behind a forced smile is wonderfully compelling throughout. Clinging to Tommy in every moment, ready to kill him in the next, Henderson’s Trish is deeply moving as the wife who wants her husband back. For an hour. A day. A moment. Throughout, there's a charm and ease, and an irresistible chemistry between Nolan and Henderson, that is utterly enchanting.
Hats off to A Show in a Bag, brainchild of Fishamble: The New Play Company, Irish Theatre Institute and Dublin Fringe Festival. When new writing all too often means young new writing, supporting a new work like “Take Off Your Cornflakes” as part of the four A Show in a Bag productions in the festival, helps challenge the ageism many feel dominates Irish theatre, especially when it comes to new writing. Hats off, too, to Pat Nolan and Rose Henderson for crafting a work of such sensitivity and relevance, giving voice and immediacy to the experience of those afflicted by Alzheimer’s. When all too often works by older writers are nostalgically looking back, Nolan and Henderson are firmly in the here and now, looking forward.
When it hits, Alzheimer’s is a puzzle that can’t be solved, only lived with, and it takes all those around it down in one shape or form. “Take Off Your Cornflakes” refuses to stay down and reclaims something back from that battle. Refusing to go quietly into that dark night, “Take Off Your Cornflakes” is a heartbreaking joy, full of love, laughter, and the living of every moment. And of jokes so bad you just can’t help laughing. So don’t miss “Take Off Your Cornflakes.” Remember to take your loved one with you, no matter what your age, and don’t forget to ask them to dance.
“Take Off Your Cornflakes” by Pat Nolan and Rose Henderson, part of A Show in a Bag at Dublin Fringe Festival 2017, runs at Bewleys Café Theatre @ Powerscourt until September 22nd
For more information visit, Dublin Fringe Festival 2017 or Bewleys Café Theatre @ Powerscourt