The Purple List – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, February 2018
Important theatre can be produced on a tight budget by a small group of talented, passionate people with minimal set and props. The Purple List is proof, if we needed it.
It is a 35-minute one-man piece focusing on the effects of dementia on a long-term gay relationship. Written by Libby Pearson, it is sensitively directed by Graeme Brown and performed compellingly by Ian Baxter. Noel Ward facilitates the q&a sessions that follow the play.
The structure and form are reminiscent of theatre-in-education, a familiar and respected genre 20 or 30 years ago but now largely a victim of cut-backs. The practitioners of theatre-in-education want more than to engage the audience’s attention for the duration of a play – they want to raise awareness and to challenge preconceptions.
The makers of The Purple List use the emotional engagement they arouse to provoke discussion and, hopefully, more: their intention is to effect positive change. They have presented the piece at conferences, in festivals and during training sessions for professionals working with people who live with dementia. This performance was part of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s innovative ‘Every Third Minute’ festival “of theatre, dementia and hope”, created by people with dementia and their supporters, to challenge ‘the prevailing perception of dementia as a condition wholly defined by loss and grief’. Praise goes to the Playhouse, its Creative Engagement team and curators for the festival, the first of its kind.
Ian Baxter plays Sam who shares with the audience his experiences and emotions as dementia gradually changes his relationship with long-term partner, Derek. Baxter creates such a rapport with the audience that we are compelled to give his character our undivided attention and the situation our empathy. We never see Derek but Baxter’s portrayal of Sam’s unconditional, honest love brings him vividly to life. It seems as if Sam needs to confide in us when Derek is out of the room: it’s his way to offload, to process his feelings. Rarely have I felt, as an audience member, so invested in a performance.
The piece begins on the evening of the couple’s wedding, for which they’ve waited 25 years. Derek is upstairs, exhausted by the celebrations. Sam describes the day and gossips about the guests. At this stage, Derek’s still working as an art tutor although tonight, he’s forgotten how to untie his shoe laces. Snapshots of the next couple of years are interspersed with short, poignantly contemplative interludes of piano music.
As the dementia progresses, we identify with Sam, laughing with him and feeling his pain and impotence as, for example, his frustration and fury erupt from ‘nowhere’ when the washing machine door won’t open. We get a sense of Derek as a creative talent with an offbeat imagination: their first, paper wedding anniversary makes Derek think of paper aeroplanes – and that’s translated into a glorious day of actual hang-gliding. So, even as memories are lost to Derek, the couple create more, some of pure joy.
For much of the play, the universal impact of dementia on couples is poignantly revealed – the endless form-filling, the fears and frustrations, the despairs and mini-victories of seeking a new way to love and care best. Paramount to the piece is the love that shines through Sam’s every action and reaction: we know that he will do anything in his power for Derek.
When care professionals are needed, the couple’s sexuality becomes more significant. Sam and Derek have no idea how the next care worker will regard their relationship, or whether any care home will make Derek welcome. The couple are not stereotypes so the audience is alerted, too, to the importance of valuing all those affected by dementia as individuals. We are shown how thoughtlessness and incompetence can have devastating effects, and how greatly appreciated are good care and compassion.
With the question and answer sessions after the play, the creators offer the audience a welcome opportunity to engage actively with the issues. In the first session, Ian Baxter remains in role as Sam. It’s a risky strategy but Baxter has the skills and in-depth background knowledge to equip him. Some members of the audience are so involved that they offer Sam reassurance and ask him for advice. In the second, the performer, writer and director invite broader discussion.
As theatre, The Purple List is an incredibly moving emotional roller-coaster: the writing spare, the directing clean and sensitive, and the performance compelling and honest. As an innovative way of pleading for support of those in the LGBT community affected by dementia, it is emotionally engaging and, as a training tool, I imagine it is uniquely powerful. In my opinion, it should be experienced by anyone working with people who have dementia and their loved ones.