Pros: The fantastical portrayals of dementia are visually arresting. The puppet Alfi is deservedly the star of the show!
Cons: Fails to convey all of the themes it sets out to address.
Dark Matter is a devised-puppetry performance about the internal experience of dementia for an elderly man near the end of his life. Alfi is now tended to in a London care home by an over stressed and negligent nurse, played by Cecile Dumont, and an inexperienced but helpful care assistant, played by Susie Fairbrother. The play is as much about how they cope with Alfi, as it is about Alfi coping with the memories of his life that surface through those around him.
This collaboration between Vertebra Theatre and Outside Puppets uses a blend of puppetry, dreamy music, handheld lights, and a healthy dollop of physical theatre to reveal details of Alfi’s life. Such memories include his childhood in Italy, his early romance with his wife, and his work as a renowned astrophysicist, stargazing at an observatory. These recollections present a stark contrast to the older Alfi, who sits feebly in a chair, withdrawn and unresponsive to the care home staff’s questions and directives.
The cast of four work well to show the hallucinations and fantastical aspects of Alfi’s mind, moving through the compelling choreography with ease. The lights go out. The room seems to take flight. Objects go flying; the furniture and the telescope are toppled over, and Alfi himself flies through the air. Some of these altered states are distressing, such as when hands appear from nowhere, molesting his body. But some experiences are more pleasant, expressing a certain freedom, particularly the flying moments, where he is chasing the stars, ambitiously striving towards some obscure dream.
I felt that even for a 45 minute show the script could have been a bit tighter. Some of the care home scenes were a little on the slow side. Although Alfi’s unresponsiveness is a key part of his condition, at points it became wearying to watch. The characterization of the overworked and dismissive nurse was clichéd and heavy handed, yet there is one touching moment where she does concede to Alfi’s delusions.
It would have been nice to come away from the performance with a greater sense of the play’s overall meaning. For me, the claimed focus on Alfi’s end of life wasn’t fully expressed. With the exception of the final half minute, the play fails to address the question put forward in the programme; Where does the brain go before we die? I also failed to see the relevance of the recent role of quantum mechanics in understanding the workings of the brain for Alfi’s story, and therefore the link between the play and its title was a little lost on me. Perhaps Alfi as an astrophysicist was close or closer than most to understanding a cure to his own disease? I couldn’t help feeling that a more cohesive narrative was needed to better communicate the play’s stated themes: the brain near death, and the relationship between the dark matter of the mind and that of subatomic space.
Overall, I enjoyed the performance and the puppeteers’ – and puppet designer, Kelly Frost – creation of a character that was engaging, endearing and seemed as real the actors. I also want to give a shout out to the staff at The Space, who were very warm and welcoming. You have to go round the back of this old church and walk up some stairs to get to what is a good contender for the most coziest pub in East London. A really lovely atmosphere with beautifully old-fashioned glass lamps, and art works for sale adorning the walls, and a very tasty house red.
Author: Eirini Dermitzaki
Director: Mayra Stergiou
Producer: Vertebra Theatre and Outside Puppets Collective
Booking Until: 15th March 2014
Box Office: 020 7515 7799
Booking Link: https://space.org.uk/