New production, Maggie May, at Leeds Playhouse explores living with dementia

After a two-year delay, a production about living with dementia, Maggie May, opens at Leeds Playhouse. Nick Ahad reports.

The theatre world is going to be feeling and responding to the effects of the pandemic for some time to come.

One of the effects is that many productions which we would have seen over the past couple of years have simply disappeared. There are many ghosts of productions in the air that we will now never see, fallen victim to the pandemic.

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Then there are productions that are simply too important to fall by the wayside, who have an imperative to live. Maggie May is one such production.

Opening at Leeds Playhouse this month, the play is a co-production between the Playhouse, Curve in Leicester and Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch and was originally commissioned in 2017 as part of Leeds Playhouse’s award-winning Every Third Minute Festival, a seven-week celebration of theatre, dementia and hope, curated by people living with dementia and their supporters.

The play was due to tour in Spring 2020, but, well, you know what happened there.

Director Jemima Levick says: “I’m thrilled that Maggie May is finally making it to the stage after the pandemic forced us to take an unexpected two-year hiatus. To be given the opportunity to revisit this special show and to share its inspirational messages of love and hope with audiences is really exciting.”

The reason, perhaps, that Maggie May came storming back from the ashes of lockdown is because of the story it tells, but also how the story came to be.

It tells the tale of a family in Leeds balancing the challenges of daily life while living with dementia, but the story hasn’t just been dreamed up by a playwright: it has been created with people who are living with dementia and connected to the Playhouse.

Frances Poet is the writer with the responsibility of telling the story.

“I was invited to come to Leeds for the week to engage with some of the people they were working with. I met some truly amazing people. People told me extraordinary stories. Nicky Taylor (Theatre and Dementia Research Associate at Leeds Playhouse) set up a dream team of people living with dementia and their supporters to connect with the play throughout the writing process, and these wonderful people helped to shape the play,” says Poet.

The Playhouse’s Nicky Taylor is an impressive advocate for the organisation which has won a national award for its work with dementia and is a pioneer in the field, staging the world’s first dementia friendly performance in 2014. Frances Poet used to visit the venue when she was at school and had gone on to work as a literary manager. Invited to the theatre to run a workshop for aspiring writers, she was asked to pitch an idea for a play about dementia.

She says: “It particularly interested me as a project because my dad had dementia. I was drawn to the challenge of exploring a story that showed a more positive side post-diagnosis because that was so far from our experience. We lost my dad back in 2012 and didn’t know to seek out opportunities and extra support for him. It made the process of writing the play bittersweet to imagine how rewarding it could have been for him to connect with the rich experiences the Playhouse offers people living with dementia.”

With movies like Still Alice starring Julianne Moore, The Father starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, and Supernova starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, conversations on screen about dementia demonstrate people want to see stories about the subject.

Frances Poet had people on hand to help tell the story of Maggie May. She says: “One particularly high-profile contributor was Wendy Mitchell (Yorkshire campaigner, advocate and author) who was still writing her first book, but gave up her time to have lunch with me. Her input was invaluable. Wendy identified the obstacles dementia can present in engaging with and enjoying narrative and came up with great suggestions of how we might overcome these through use of significant colours and music. Later, Wendy and a core group of people with similar lived experience were able to attend a run through of the play and gave astute feedback on the production which brought more changes and improvements. It felt like quite a daunting task to find a form that could work for and be truthful to an audience of people living with dementia, their carers as well as a wider audience with no direct connection to dementia.

“I’m not usually mystical about my writing in any way but, in this instance, I can honestly say that the character of Maggie helped me through. She seemed to arrive fully formed, speaking her first monologue. She showed me the way.”

Poet had the story, but she had to consider the audience for the production, which the Playhouse wanted to make certain was entirely accessible to people living with dementia.

Poet says: “Using clear signposts in the play to help Maggie with her disorientation, I could also help orientate the audience.

“I also used a kind of sung call and response pattern between Maggie and her husband to show their warm, loving relationship but also to introduce some music into the play. Music always reached my dad however difficult a day he might be having. If someone pinged a fork against a glass in the kitchen, he would sing the note. Music can be a powerful way of communicating.”

At Leeds Playhouse May 7-21. Tickets leedsplayhouse.org.uk