This hit US dementia drama is just a bit too polished for its own good
There are memory plays and then there’s this. American playwright Sharr White’s ‘The Other Place’ presents a patchwork portrait of an ageing woman, Juliana, losing her mind to dementia, then weaves in a dark, thriller-ish family drama. ‘Still Alice’ crossed with ‘Gone Girl’.
The truth is a slippery thing. Splicing together Juliana’s own testimony of events with short scenes featuring her husband and her doctor, White consistently pulls the rug from underneath the audience’s feet. Are Juliana and Ian getting a divorce? Is Ian having an affair? Where is their daughter? Does she even exist?
‘The Other Place’ enjoyed acclaimed runs both on and off Broadway earlier this decade, and it’s not difficult to see why. At an inoffensive 80 minutes long, it’s a tightly written essay on dementia, with a sharp mother-daughter kick to it. But it is veeeery American – there’s a schematic, almost clinical edge to it, and an awkward sitcom humour stuffed in that’s more ‘How I Met Your Mother’ than ‘Are You My Husband?’
The Park Theatre, looking to capitalise on that ‘The Notebook’ dime, has brought it to British shores in a production directed by ‘Farinelli and the King’ writer Claire van Kampen. There’s a fair bit going for it, not least Karen Archer’s excellent central performance as Juliana. Archer manages the transition from aggressive, assertive Big Pharma businesswoman, to cruel and confused husk with real subtlety – she’s on the floor, chomping Chinese food, with no clue where she is before you know it.
Despite Archer’s skill, though, and despite strong supporting performances from Neil McCaul, Eliza Collings and Rupinder Nagra, there’s something sterile here. Van Kampen’s staging unfolds swiftly and slickly – perhaps too slickly – on Jonathan Fensom’s featureless, wooden set, but it can’t mask the play’s frailties and flaws, its surgical structure and uneven tone. Moving, but only moderately so.