Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Finding Joy is touching masked comedy that explores the experience of dementia through through the eyes of Joy, a grandmother, and her relationship with her teenage grandson as he clumsily but affectionately looks after her and makes her laugh. Deeply moving and amusing in its keen observation of family relationships, it’s a must-see of this year’s Fringe.
Finding Joy is a beautiful masked comedy that centres on the affectionate and sometimes awkward relationship between a teenage boy and his grandmother who has dementia. It’s a moving and amusing show that deals with a sensitive subject with poignancy and humour.
Veering just on the right side of cliché, the characters are both recognisable modern archetypes – confused older woman, stressed out middle aged woman, monosyllabic teenage boy, arrogant doctor with no bedside manner, disinterested care worker, constantly cheerful care worker, nice male nurse – and individuals you grow to care about.
The masks are cleverly made to convey the essence of each character, while the gestures expressing their reactions and interactions are keenly observed.
The lack of dialogue is fundamental to the success of this play. Were the characters to speak, it might become either sentimental and mawkish or too specific, about the detail of particular people rather a more universal experience. But in their silence the characters say what you imagine them saying and so become someone you think you think you know.
The silence of the grandson is particularly effective as it captures the moody wordlessness of teenage boys, with verbal communication substituted for a set of ritualistic physical actions – hood up, shoulders hunched, phone out, phone back in pocket.
There is a fine balance between joy and sorrow that Vamos handles well. The grandmother’s frequent fear and confusion, as well as the contrast between her gentle determination and the other aggressive, bullying old lady in the hospital ward, stop this being just a nice sentimental journey, while comedic moments such as the slapstick use of the grandmother’s bag collection and the glove puppet dog prevent it becoming depressing.
There are really nice touches that illustrate the relationship, such as the grandmother urging her grandson to zip up his jacket while she herself is wandering the streets in her nightie.
While Finding Joy has no dialogue, it is not silent, and sound is used very effectively as an explanatory device for not only where Joy’s mind has taken her, but why it has gone there, as an ambulance siren merges into an air raid warning, traffic noise becomes the sound of a wartime steam train and tunes from various stages of her life pop into her head as she pictures happier times.
The use of a multimedia projected cine film from her childhood also neatly echoes the live masked characters we see her remembering and the invisible dog she keeps reaching to pet.
It is this insight into Joy’s own experience that is so powerful, as the audience view the grandmother not from the outside as just some old person doing odd things, but join her on her internal journey, seeing what she is seeing and knowing why her actions, which appear strange to others, make perfect sense from her point of view. It’s a very moving and dignified portrayal that captures the essence of dementia.
A couple of objects, the grandmother’s old handbag and hankerchiefs, are used effectively as repeated motifs. Those characters that understand Joy know she needs to have her handbag with her to feel safe, those that don’t try to take it away. Her family also know that she likes to have a hankie up her sleeve at all times, but only the audience finds out why that is.
The set is a simple but effective four-panel curtained screen used to represent floral wallpaper, the blue curtains of a hospital and various doors and cupboards, plus a bed that transforms into other pieces of furniture. While the view of anything going on at floor level is not easy to see in this particular venue, it doesn’t impede any understanding of what is going on.
One slight weakness in the set, though, is that as the doors in the screen open and close, the audience can see through them and there is nothing behind but black drapes. There is potential to make better use of this space, perhaps with a secondary set behind the screen or projections to fill the gap. However, that is minor issue in an otherwise excellent piece of theatre.
Finding Joy is at its heart an examination of family relationships: the special affection between a grandchild and grandparent, particularly a teenage boy who finds it difficult to express emotion to many people, contrasted with the irritation and strain on an adult caring for their aging parent.
The bittersweet comedy echoes the experience of knowing someone with dementia that many in audience would be able to relate to: at times amusing, as you share the funniness in the more bizarre moments, at others sad, as you see the person you knew changing and receding into their own memories. Finding Joy, however, allows you the privilege and the joy of delving into those memories too. It’s an unmissable piece of theatre and an undoubted highlight of this year’s festival.