Sundowner runs at Merrigong Theatre Company from March 19-23, and then embarks on a national tour. By David Denborough, directed by Kate Denborough.
A couple of years ago, when I was still living and working in Canberra, I passed by a bookshop on my way home from work. Every day, I would stop and look at the sale table before going on my way. On this one particular day, I picked up a picture book and idly flicked through it. The book was My Gran’s Different by Sue Lawson. It’s about a boy and his relationship with his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The last line is one I will always remember (though I might have paraphrased it a bit here). ‘My gran’s different. She doesn’t remember who she is. But that’s okay, because I remember who she is.’
Maybe I was having a particularly bad or emotional day that day – I don’t remember. What I do remember is that that book struck me like a punch to the heart. I had to rush back to my office two blocks away and barricade myself in the bathroom, ugly crying. Something about it just really, really got me.
Sadly, I cannot say the same thing for Sundowner. It clearly borrows from Lawson’s book – it has that same last line which got me so hard – but instead of fleeing sobbing to the bathroom, Sundowner kind of left me cold. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to have the same kind of emotional response to it, and that’s okay. There’s no rule that every text about something like this has to be deeply, gut-wrenchingly emotional. However, I feel like I didn’t come away with much of an emotional response of any kind.
I don’t think has anything to do with the performances. This is superb physical theatre: I want to be very clear on this point. Technically, this is a superior show. The dancing is incredible and Helen Morse’s performance as dementia sufferer Peggy is sensitive and nuanced. I think it has to do with the structure. I can understand why this piece didn’t have a straightforward narrative: it was from Peggy’s perspective, and she no longer experienced the world in a linear, straightforward way. But this didn’t feel like a person’s story at all. I was discussing it afterwards with my sister, who came to see it with me. She’s a psych student, and she made the astute observation that it felt like a dramatisation of the entry of dementia in the DSM. Instead of exploring Peggy’s relationships and interactions and how her dementia affected them, it seemed more preoccupied with dramatising her symptoms. In places, it had that kind of educational feel about it that you get in those Very Special episodes of TV shows that deal with the big issues.
I have already mentioned the technical superiority of this piece, and I want to mention it again, because in this sense, it really is outstanding. In some places, it’s almost a little too outstanding. Maybe I’m just really shallow, but I’m ridiculously easily impressed by feats of strength and flexibility, and there were bits where I was all, “wow! that’s amazing! that guy is standing on that other guy’s shoulders while he’s kind of doing a half sit up leaning on his elbows! how does that even work?” This is all fine and good, but the spectacle broke me out of engagement with the show. I also felt that, while the dance was brilliant, it was used in much the same way the whole way through: to dramatise and metaphorically mirror the struggles and turmoil going on in Peggy’s mind. I would have been interested to see what other ways dance might be used in a performative sense here.
I feel like I’ve been quite hard on Sundowner. There is a lot to like in it, not least the physical prowess of the performers. However, I think it contained the potential for so much more. In particular, there was a lot more room for emotional exploration in the narrative. I would have loved to get more of a sense of who Peggy was as a person. Beyond the fact that she was a writer and liked dance and music and theatre, we didn’t know a whole lot about her. Maybe this is because the show was told very much from Peggy’s perspective and she didn’t quite know who she was either, but it lowered the narrative stakes. It was hard to imagine just how much Peggy had to lose.