In the past, dementia was thought to be a kind of madness, but it is now defined as a non-specific syndrome where there is loss of cognitive ability in areas such as memory, attention and the ability to solve problems. Though it can affect people of all ages, it is particularly prevalent in the geriatric population. Most of us find dealing with people with dementia distressing and disturbing. Family members who acquire the disease can become strangers who do not recognise us and may not even know who they are. A medical condition with such serious personal and emotional consequences is ripe for dramatic consideration, even if it presents a subject which many of us would rather avoid.
Written and performed by Trevor T Smith, 'An Evening With Dementia' is delivered from the point of view of an old man suffering from the disease. Trevor Smith spends most of the performance sitting in a director's chair with his legs covered in a blanket. He wears a dressing gown, has wispy dishevelled hair and something unpleasant poking out of one of his nostrils. His walking stick leans against the chair almost as a symbol of his age and condition, and simple black curtains surround him, symbolising the void which most of his mind has effectively become.
His right hand shakes uncontrollably throughout the performance as Mr Smith gives us glimpses of his daily experiences in what seems to be a care home. With his memory devastated, he doesn't even know what he doesn't know. He can't remember what he's had for lunch and doesn't know what time it is. But he's still canny enough to recognise that if he's being asked what he had for lunch, it must be afternoon. Loss of memory though can actually bring 'one surprise after another' when he's told things he should know, but can't remember.
But not all his memories have been lost. He can recall his career as an actor, and like all actors has funny stories about staying in boarding houses, but he can't remember if he has a son or daughter, or what other relationships he's had. In fact, he says he is even losing his relationship with himself, with a part of him that feels like it has already 'crossed over'.
In just an hour, Mr Smith manages to convey considerable detail about what life is like for a patient suffering from dementia. Awkward questions from the medical staff, the indignity of not being able to get to the toilet in time, the lack of knowledge about friends and family, and the 'ache of loneliness' combine to form a poignantly vivid picture. Drawing on his own life experiences, the play is humorous and moving in almost equal proportions, but it's also bleak and distressing because we witness a person as a shell of his former self.
Trevor Smith's well-paced performance is certainly compelling. He moves easily between the humorous and the poignant, and his humanitarian personality shines through the dim shadows of the vacuum the disease has created. At one point in the play, he ventures from his chair into the audience which I suppose was meant to break the monotony of a single acting position. But I'm not sure this worked dramatically, or from a story-telling point of view. It did occasion some laughter from the audience, but seemed a little forced and unnecessary. Another minor niggle was that the black curtains at the back of the stage were covered in fluff, needing a damn good clean and giving a rather amateurish impression of the staging.
It always takes a lot of guts and nerve to perform a one-man show, let alone write it as well, and Trevor Smith shows here that he has more than enough of each to meet the challenge. 'An Evening With Dementia' is not merely an educational or informative piece, even if it does offer a clear description of the terrible consequences of this disease. Trevor Smith enables us to recognise that, in spite of what has been lost, his character is still in every sense a human being, worthy of respect and dignity. Well-worth seeing.