The elderly have been getting up to quite a few youthful shenanigans recently. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, Age 83 ¼ (2014), a fictional diary of a cranky OAP that topped the Dutch bestseller lists for over a year, is now also on a rise in its English translation. From Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (2009) to the 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its 2015 sequel, the world seems to need repeated hilarious reminders that being elderly does not equate to being dull, obnoxious, and forgettable.
Sandi Toksvig (1958) has brought her own comedic talent to the retirement home in her newest play Silver Lining, which was staged earlier this month at the newly refurbished Oxford Playhouse. Written for five veteran actresses and two budding talents, the comedy intends to highlight both society’s disrespect for the elderly and theatre’s lack of room for older female talent. A storm is raging, and the five residents of a small retirement home in Gravesend are being readied by a sprightly young temp who will bring them to the bus that will evacuate them. As they realise the bus is never going to arrive, they take ownership of their fate and plan their own way out.
Many of the jokes, in particular in the first half of the play, serve mostly to emphasise rather than break down oppositions between young and old. Much of the dialogue is of a kind familiar to people acquainted with old-folk comedy: jokes about malfunctioning bodily functions, sex and the lack of it, and the taboo on expressing dissatisfaction with such lack. There are vibrators and disposable potties, and a young girl who is excessively disturbed by all these old biddies.
Keziah Joseph, having graduated in 2016 from Royal Central, plays the teenage temp Hope Daley. Her performance, presenting every stereotype of a teenager within her first three minutes on stage — selfie stick, slang, hashtags — would have been awkwardly over the top if it wasn’t compensated by Sheila Reid (1937) as Gloria. Wearing hot pink trainers, skilled at facetiming, hashtagging and dabbing, Gloria shows that both her and Hope’s reliance on their phones and social networks is not reserved for the young alone, and functions only as a front used by both women to mask their own anger and fears. Hope’s blaming both Brexit and global warming on the elderly, however, goes unquestioned.
Sandi Toksvig’s son Theo Toksvig-Stewart makes his professional stage debut in a brief role as a burglar. He functions mostly to show why, surprisingly, this play needed the help of professional fight director Kevin McCurdy, in a stellar scene with nervous elderly lady Maureen (Rachel Davies).
The second half is less awkward: the potty humour fits in better, and is compensated by beautiful moments of introspection that show the fascinating long histories of the five women and the struggles they have faced. These are compared to Hope’s frustration as a young black woman in the age of Brexit, without making the viewer feel that one person’s pain should be considered worse than another’s. A particularly stunning moment is the monologue by the woman played by Amanda Walker (1935), who is given the name St Michael after the label in her clothes, as her dementia has made her forget her real name. She painfully and beautifully conveys a rare moment of self-awareness in which she realises that she might have to feel sad about the loss of her child — if she really had one, if she really lost him.
The finale is as a comedy finale should be: not everything has gone perfectly, but there is hope, there is happiness, and there is excessive music. Yet the bizarre storyline of this play — five elderly women and a young one building a raft to sail out of flooded Gravesend — made me wonder how it should make us reflect on the treatment of elderly people in real life. The social criticism of women in theatre has worked, to the extent that this play beautifully displays the skills of veteran actresses, but the play leaves us directionless with regard to the plight of the elderly in society more broadly.
For future shows at the Oxford Playhouse, please visit their website.