Those familiar with Hope Mill Theatre would have seen a baby grand piano in their bar area, which has an important history. It was donated by a remarkable lady called Barbara. Music was an important part of Barbara’s life and a piece of sheet music was found inside the piano stool.
Written and performed by her grandson, Mark Croasdale, and Tom Guest, Barbara cordially invites the audience to an afternoon of “candlelight, crumpets and crooning”.
Barbara is a beautiful, loving tribute, which is a work-in-progress. It was performed for the first time as part of Hope Mill Theatre’s inaugural LGBT festival, the Turn On Fest. I usually don’t write full reviews for plays that are still in an early stage of development. However, Barbara is such an accomplished piece that affected me deeply, I want to give it the full credit that it thoroughly deserves.
Mark Croasdale bestows his grandmother’s character with an abundance of charm and charisma. He presents Barbara as a chirpy, Hyacinth Bucket character, who gives herself airs and graces, and loves being the centre of attention. Croasdale’s voice is soft, with a feminine intonation and perfectly spoken Queen’s English. Although Barbara enjoys crooning, her singing voice is awfully shrill, which simply enhances her amusing, warm personality.
There is nothing that Barbara loves more than a buttered crumpet, and crumpets are distributed to each member of the audience, which is a lovely touch. They are warmed under a grill, not a toaster, because Barbara believes that toasters are for commoners.
Barbara is joined by her husband Bernard, pronounced BernARD, in true Mrs Bucket fashion. He is performed by Tom Guest. Bernard plays the piano, providing the afternoon with musical accompaniment. As the audience tuck into their buttered crumpets, they are encouraged to engage in civilised conversation, “What is the thing you find most fascinating about tea-towels?”, and participate in some lighthearted crooning.
Over the afternoon, Barbara orchestrates several joyful sing-a-longs that chronicle her love of musicals, including ‘Lollipop‘ and The Sound of Music‘s ‘Do-Re-Mi’. The highlight is Barbara’s fantastic rendition of ‘Food Glorious Food‘ from Oliver! The audience are forbidden from singing along to this because Barbara wants to take centre-stage, displaying her delightfully flamboyant Broadway dance routine.
But – Barbara forgets her words, loses her train of thought, and goes back to what she discussed earlier in the show. The clues are there. These are all signs of dementia.
The emotional hammer-blow comes when Barbara starts a group sing-a-long to ‘Lollipop‘, complete with ‘popping’ noises. However, she soon forgets the song, and wanders aimlessly through the audience; distracted and confused. Bernard offers her a buttered crumpet, which serves as her trigger, bringing her back to relative normality.
Barbara delicately handles the profound devastation of dementia by deftly showing the impact that it has, not only on the sufferer, but also its effect on the wider family. It precisely captures the love, loss, and heartbreak of watching your loved ones fade. At times, Tom Guest’s Bernard snaps at Barbara, accurately rendering his frustration, and the huge emotional strain that dementia had on their marriage.
Barbara was incredibly resonant and deeply moving for me. It caused me to remember my own grandmother’s dementia. It brought back memories of how my grandmother suffered from it, and how much it changed her personality. She passed away in 2012, and I thought that I had finished grieving for her. I was wrong. This play hit me hard and touched a raw nerve. It opened a floodgate and tears flowed down my face. I have never been so greatly affected by a piece of theatre.
Dementia is a cruel disease that deprives people of their personalities and their treasured memories. Barbara’s decline from the chirpy lady, who loves a good musical and a buttered crumpet, into the depths of dementia was profoundly emotional to watch.
Although this is the first time that Barbara has been performed, it never shows. The love, affection and dedication that Mark Croasdale feels towards his grandmother permeates the entire performance.
Barbara is a heartfelt, beautiful, deeply tender tribute that also raises awareness of dementia. It is delightful and devastating in equal measure. Every time I visit Hope Mill Theatre, I will always remember the extraordinary origins behind that baby grand piano.