Thursday 12th October 2017 at the Carriageworks, Leeds.
Vamos Theatre have been lifting spirits and breaking hearts with their full mask shows since 2006 and they are now the UK’s leading full mask theatre company. They have audiences belly laughing and crumpling into tears through their adept and emotional physical storytelling which skilfully uses the body to communicate feelings while a perfectly sculpted, unmoving face indicates a central personality. It’s never less than impressive to watch how depth of meaning is created in a wordless world. This was my fourth Vamos production – six if you count seeing shows more than once. It’s been a year or so since my last visit to a Vamos show and it’s true what they say – absence does make the heart grow fonder. It’s easy to simply know that Vamos are truly brilliant – but it’s not until you’re back in an audience watching their shows that you really understand how special they are as a company. As it happens, Vamos are in my top 3 UK theatre companies (joined by Kneehigh and 1927 Productions) and Finding Joy, written and directed by the insightful Rachael Savage, most definitely illustrates why.
The show follows the life of a sweet lady in her later years. Joy, played by Bidi Iredale, suffers from dementia and finds herself frequently confused, lost and at the mercy of memories which take hold at the slightest parallel; an ambulance siren morphs into war sirens and a young, frightened Joy runs in stage; a tap on the knee reminds her of her childhood companion… Joy has a loving but very busy daughter (Louise Mellor) who represents the sector of families that helps someone with dementia with logistical help such as groceries and liaising with doctors, but lack the time and patience to work with Joy more supportively. Joy also has a teenage grandson though – and it is the increasingly heart warming relationship between grandmother and grandson which this story centres on and which has the greatest impact in highlighting the lives of those living with dementia.
The teenage son (Aron De Casmaker) is at that stage in his life where he sees himself as ‘well wicked’ and along with his house music loving side-kick, played with comic swagger by Rayo Patel, Casmaker swiftly has the audience laughing and investing before melting hearts later on. This public persona of his gently shifts as he is made responsible for his lost grandmother for just one evening; he learns of her struggles and something clicks – it’s time to spend more time with grandma. So he does. He learns how to gently coach her into simple everyday things; how to make her feel secure and how to bring her out of her memories – but he also brings out her playfulness and makes her laugh despite the situation. The relationship is moving precisely because of the dynamics chosen; centring on a relationship like this between mother and daughter or son and daughter would no doubt be moving, but to focus on a scrappy youngster just at that point when he’s flashing his boxers in his low slung jeans and doing his very best to appear ‘hip’ is altogether more powerful because the transition is more gradual and unexpected.
The superb cast multi-role with brilliant dexterity, donning mind boggling costume and mask changes which make it nigh on impossible to follow which cast members play which characters – there’s not much to assist with this but for height and ankle width! Regardless, the fact that it’s impossible to tell the cast apart speaks volumes about their skill as full mask actors; their physicality shifts with every character and those characters are each distinct and well rounded. Iredale plays the title role and brings Joy to life with many layers; she’s vulnerable, scared, often confused but always willing and eager to laugh when an opportunity for mischief arrives. While Iredale captures the physical fragility of the character, with shuffling feet and gentle movements, she also shows glimpses of a no-nonsense fiery side which is a welcome reminder of Joy’s younger days when life was simpler. It’s heartbreaking to watch her memories play out before her eyes; her childhood of fear set in wartime; her days of working and flirting; her loving marriage – all make frequent appearances and shed plenty of light on the confusing actions of the older Joy.
There’s plenty of humour in Finding Joy; the name tells you so. Joy isn’t just the eponymous character, it’s also the mission of the story – to have the characters find joy amongst life’s struggles, and they do. Minor characters are used to demonstrate the flaws in society when it comes to supporting dementia patients; for every lovely and attentive nurse, there’s a brusque, cold doctor who has all the bedside manner of a cactus. For every nurse who takes the time to care, there’s another who would like to but there’s too much else to do. But even while highlighting a decidedly upsetting experience for poor Joy, who doesn’t get any say at all, there’s plenty of humour to provide a delicate balancing act.
Like with the loss of a sense, in a world without words, design features become more prominent and those in Finding Joy comfortably combine to create a visual treat and a layered piece of theatre. In a world without words, Janie Armour’s compositions underscore the changing atmospheres and emotions beautifully. The contrast of past and present and the darkness of some of Joy’s memories is indicated by Chris Barham’s subtle lighting design and Mike Jackson’s black and white cine film is atmospheric and nostalgic as it is projected to poignantly show us a young care-free Joy. The masks (Russell Dean) are caricature-like and comic characters have the most exaggerated features for maximum impact. Those masks are not the only markers of design brilliance in this production though; set design (Carl Davies) is inspired in its complex simplicity. Set pieces are few and carry a multitude of compartments, flaps and hinges to play a wide array of functions. The flat screen itself is an incredibly versatile piece of set; various doors/cubby holes are simply draped wth fabrics and slickly morph from a hinged door into a swing door to add further visual finesse to the pacy quick changes and multi-rolling as well as indicating the changes to setting. Costuming, also by Davies, features A line dresses to evoke the class of times gone by while the modern garb perfectly captures the characterisation of each be-masked character.
This company consistently deliver with their shows as they unravel meaningful tales, but I’ve never seen such an emotional departure from a theatre as I did when leaving this performance of Finding Joy; people whose lives mirror or have mirrored those of the characters on stage; those who work with dementia patients and those who were simply moved to tears by the beautifully crafted sentimental story. This show is socially important and a theatrical delight – those red rimmed eyes and grateful smiles are a testament to the moving and meaningful Finding Joy and its wonderful cast. If they had been playing at the Carriageworks for a second night, I would have been back – as it stands, I’ll eagerly await their next triumph…
You MUST see this show if you can – and you can get your tickets here!
Note: The company have developed Finding Joy into a dementia-friendly show/ workshops called Sharing Joy which tours care homes and other venues, working with dementia patients, their families and professionals, so if you have the interest or influence to organise for Vamos to share Joy with you in that capacity, you can find more information here.
Finding Joy is co-produced by Hereford Courtyard in association with Jabadao and funded by Arts Council England and Worcestershire County Council.