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Absorbing, Reflective, Immaculate: Breadcrumbs

by on 19 June 2017


by Jennifer Haley

Teddington Theatre Club at The Coward Room, Hampton Hill Theatre until 24th June

Review by Thomas Forsythe

There are illness that take away the strength of the body; there are illness that take away the strength of the mind; and then there is dementia, and that takes away the soul.   This is what makes dementia, in all its forms, so terrifying to contemplate and so destroying for the victim and those around the victim.   But why do we say “victim”?  Each one suffers and each is human.

However, we all die and we are all born.  It’s the bit in the middle that matters.  The skill of acclaimed Texan writer, Jennifer Haley, in her sensitively-handled play Breadcrumbs, is to examine the value of the bit in the middle from a dementia ravaged viewpoint.  Nevertheless, this is not a maudlin examination of personal disintegration.  The effects of dementia are the springboard for a much wider exploration of relationships, trust, worth, truth, reality and need.

There is a complexity in Haley’s script and, in the wrong hands, it could go uncomfortably awry in production.   Co-directors, Andy Smith and Jane Marcus, are both well-known as being amongst the best of local actors, but, for both, Breadcrumbs represents their directorial débuts, so here is a hard call.  However, with their small but talented company, Smith and Marcus have created a memorable theatrical moment; absorbing, reflective, artistically immaculate.

Alida is a writer who is undergoing medical investigations for a rapidly progressing form of dementia.  Her self-imposed therapy is to try to write a story in her own style (think folksy but dark fairy tale) that is strongly autobiographical.  The breadcrumbs in the title allude to the Hansel and Gretel tale, in which their wayfinding trail of breadcrumbs is eaten by birds and they are lost in a dark wood.   Alida’s breadcrumbs are her own memories and she is constantly saying that she wants to be “out of the woods”.


Set designer, Fiona Auty, has created a sinuously claustrophobic set in The Coward Room studio space at Hampton Hill, into which audience winds its way through overgrown woodland into a mysterious forest, set within the studio, to discover the interior of Alida’s flat in New York.   Already we are symbolically probing the interior of Alida’s mind, the woods that she wants to be out of.

The atmospheric nature of this set further enhanced by the lighting and sound design.   Steph Pang really knows how to light the Coward Room studio, her economic design follows the nuances of the time changes and the mood changes, sculpting the scene-scape.  The soundscape is an interpolation of Will Williams’ music and John Pyle’s sound, which make the jarring inconsistencies of Alida’s mind symbolically audible to the audience.

Into Alida’s disintegrating world comes Beth, an auxiliary at the hospital that is examining Alida.  Beth takes a proprietorial interest in Alida, and becomes engrossed in the biography that Alida is trying to write.  Beth encourages her to publish the work, but Alida is adamant that it is “only for myself”.  Beth even gives up her hospital job to become Alida’s part-time researcher, although Alida presciently insists that “there is no end”, and furthermore stubbornly stipulates that none of the research should be on computer, for she “loves the smell of ink on paper” (a nostalgia that your reviewer shares, particularly when the electronics assert their own freewill).  Eventually, Beth moves into Alida’s flat, temporarily … or is it?

You see, we only know this world through the eyes of the suspicious Alida, whose sense of time is erratic, but the writing leaves ambiguous the possibility that Beth may be taking advantage of the vulnerable patient.  She may equally be a benevolent self-appointed carer.  What is certain however, is that both are lonely, both are adrift emotionally and that both have “a past”.    And within the conceit of the poetic writing of the play, the characters gradually begin to mirror each other.

So Beth represents Alida’s mother, Alida her own juvenile self, and the half-remembered (or misremembered) events in Alida’s life mirror (or become) events in Beth’s (real?) life.  The ambience of the play becomes dreamlike as we enter Alida’s failing mind.  And the words become more poetic.  Alida, realising that that the veins on the back of her hand look like those on an autumnal leaf, reminisces “a yellow leaf: I thought I should write my memoirs before my brain turned brown!”

The intricate involutions of this play demands acting of the highest standard, and TTC’s company delivers it.

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Joolz Connery is simply outstanding as Alida.  She precisely pictures the stubbornness that can be ingrained in the self-reliant, the tetchiness that can follow the failing elderly, and the anxiety that always torments those with dementia.  Connery has obviously studied the mannerisms of dementia sufferers and has these to a tee.  The Alida of now and the child Alida in her mind is accurately and clearly differentiated.   The pervasive urgency of Alida’s quest is palpable, a quest to race against her failing memory, before she becomes Gretel, lost in “an infinite indifferent darkness.”

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Beth is a rootless young woman seeking roots.  Lara Parker portrays Beth as a directionless drifter, all at sea but wanting to put down an anchor.  She cannot make lasting relationships and has had a string of loveless encounters with different men.  Parker skilfully depicts this shrugging aimlessness with a measured empathy, and she also clearly differentiates the real Beth and the Beth as a personification of Alida’s mother.

Both Alida and Beth are seeking what Alida calls “points of reference” in their lives.  For Beth these include a black bin-bag of stuffed toys, her comfort blanket that she moves to each new abode; for Alida they include stick-it notes to label things before she forgets their names.  As a writer, words are important to Alida and she becomes obsessed with the etymology of words that are obviously significant to her.  She asks Beth to research “femur” and “witch”.   The symbolic allusion is back to Hansel and Gretel : the gingerbread house becomes one of body parts and she sees it roofed in mucus.  We can infer that Alida’s mind transfuses the witch with her mother and the house with the Californian villa of her mother’s lover, an exploitative pornographer, covered in muckiness.  This villa is the subject of a pair of concatenated traumatic events, which are burnt into Alida’s mind.  Maybe they foretell the direction of Beth’s life.

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The bit in the middle is still real for Beth, but for Alida the bit in the middle has itself bits missing, such is the nature of dementia.  However, another trick of dementia, rather than to hide, is to reveal.  Layers of the past can be peeled away to uncover more layers, like the bulb of an onion, releasing long-forgotten flavours.

But, as Alida says, “we create dreams, but they can never be true”.

Thomas Forsythe

June 2017

Photography by Sarah Carter


From → Drama, Reviews

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