At the heart of Barney Norris’ play is a beautifully rendered relationship of an ageing couple, Arthur and Edie. Childhood sweethearts, they come to terms with old age as they reminisce over times gone by. Along with a life time of nostalgic memories come regrets and missed opportunities. “I wish I had tried LSD” Arthur sighs, reflecting on the Sixties. Sadly, the foundations of this enduring relationship are being threatened by their declining health and the devastating onset of dementia, with which Edie is diagnosed.
Although Visitors sounds bleakly morose, Norris’ play is actually hugely endearing, loaded with charm and witty humour. As with any long-lasting relationship, Arthur and Edie trade facetious insults with each other. Norris based the couple on his grandparents, and their relationship is rendered with such precision that it feels authentic.
This authenticity is enhanced by the magnificent performances from Liz Crowther and Robin Herford. Although all the characters are exquisitely portrayed by the four actors, Crowther and Herford are pivotal to the play. They both share a warm chemistry, wonderfully portraying the archetypal couple, bickering amongst themselves, yet also beautifully depicting the tender affection that has become the foundation of their marriage. Crowther perfectly renders Edie’s vulnerability, making her character gentle and endearing. Herford’s Arthur defiantly confronts old age, carving a strong character, who is fiercely loyal to Edie, despite his ageing limbs.
Sammy Dowson’s set design suitably mirrors the couple’s warmth, creating a comfortable hearth in the family home. Adorned with old memories, from photographs to old medals and collectables, it is ideal for a play that concerns nostalgic reflections of life.
Although Visitors delicately treats the sensitive subject matter of dementia with respect, it seems that by doing so, Norris cautiously underplays the full gravity of dementia on Edie’s character. My nanna battled dementia for years and it is a devastating disease that strips the person of their personality and their independence. It is not just forgetting things. My nanna didn’t just forget who I was, but dementia deprived her of knowing who she was herself.
Despite the play’s narrative stating that Edie needs constant care from a live-in carer, her character appears too sharp-witted and independent to provide an accurate depiction of the later stages of dementia. Maybe this is to brighten the play’s mood, but I found it difficult to believe that Edie’s mental health had deteriorated far enough to warrant the discussions of putting her in a nursing home, that are central to the plot. To me, it seems that Edie is still tackling the early stages of dementia, namely the forgetfulness. Although her condition worsens as the play progresses, her identity and selfhood remain strong; something dementia brutally destroys.
I also find the sound design and visual backdrop to be detrimental to the portrayal of Edie’s dementia. Whenever she lapses into memories, a high-pitched ringing pierces my ears, as I struggle to hear Crowther’s dialogue over it. An assault on the senses, which seems an unnecessary distraction, considering that Jason Taylor’s lighting design subtly changes whenever Edie’s condition lapses. This subtle approach with lighting works more successfully than the stark visual backdrop and harsh sound effects.
Visitors is a lovely play with a wonderfully endearing couple at its heart. With magnificent performances and carefully constructed characters, it is a nostalgic reflection on life that is both moving and amusing.