Thursday, February 28, 2019

I Shall Wear Purple – painting a comedic scene of care home art therapy and the politics of art (c21 Theatre at Grand Opera House + NI Tour)

After a heart scare, Olivia has sold up her house on the verge of her 80th birthday and moved into residential care. Realistically, her lack of filter is the only thing wrong with her. According to Olivia’s fertile daughter, it’s an experiment to see if this safe accommodation suits her. But the incarcerated retired teacher has full control of her marbles and does not want to become like the other residents who seem to have handed their free will and dignity over to the home’s staff.

After an unfortunate incident with custard and a clown, Olivia is mercifully withdrawn from group activities and begins eight weeks of art classes with Thomas, an aspiring and soon to be destitute artist half a century younger.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new comedy I Shall Wear Purple delivers an inter-generational clash as the fastidious and alert Olivia (played by Stella McCusker) gets to grips with brash and expressive art therapist (Patrick McBrearty).

The characters are well-matched with Thomas’ enthusiasm, catchphrases and artistic license appealing to Olivia’s curiosity and her need to express her rage against the system. As her guard drops, his inhibitions fade and soon the incarcerated near-octogenarian discovers the lengths her sweary teacher is willing to go to pursue his art. His sometimes frank sexual references are matched by her startling awareness of eyewatering paraphernalia that adds to the humour rather than any sense of naturalism.

McCusker brings colour and spark to the role, clashing against the jibes McBrearty delivers in his soft yet somewhat shouty Donegal accent. It’s delightful to watch the seasoned actress win nearly every round of verbal jousting with her cheeky tutor. Jenkinson’s trademark acerbic wit and observation is well employed throughout the 75 minute play, ridiculing a scenario that most of us want to avoid but know we’d be lucky to be trapped in. The situation at the heart of I Shall Wear Purple is not a million miles away from fears and conversations in many households as aging parents – particularly widows or widowers – consider where and how to enjoy the remaining years of their health and life.

Since all art is political, it should be no surprise that Jenkinson squeezes in a plot point about arts cuts and the effect it has on practitioners. The gears crunch a bit as the plot shifts into its final crisis but the denouement that fades out rather than contriving a dramatic shock is apt and benefits from some lovely directorial touches by Stephen Kelly, including Thomas’ final glance and smile across towards his student.

Paint is mixed and at times the scale of the work takes over the stage. But unlike Red, their art is never allowed to distract from our observation of the odd couple making it. Music is incorporated into the structure and plot of the play, with the final Con Te Partirò (Time to Say Goodbye) delivering emotion with the rising orchestra and the dimming lights.

I Shall Wear Purple portrays growing old in an intelligent albeit droll way and brings together two actors in a way that reminds us that talent – theatrical or artistic – is not constrained by age. While there are allusions to Jenny Joseph’s poem, thankfully there’s no spitting and no recitation.

You can catch I Shall Wear Purple on the Grand Opera House’s Baby Grand stage until Saturday 2 March before c21 Theatre Company help the cast out onto a bus for an evening outing away from the care home and take the show on tour through Newry (Tuesday 5), Strabane (Friday 8), Downpatrick (Saturday 9), Cushendall (Sunday 10), Armagh (Wednesday 13) and Antrim (Friday 15).

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