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Review: Paradise, at Hampstead Theatre

Dusty Hughes’ poignant new play tackles dementia, attitudes to the elderly and homophobia

10 January, 2019 — By Howard Loxton

Sara Kestelman as Amanda in Paradise. Photos: Robert Day

AN elderly couple who have known each other since schooldays sit in an idyllic English walled garden with grass underfoot and birdsong in the air, drinking gin and engaged in the prickly banter of old friends. They are residents in a luxurious retirement home.

It’s a very different place from the Soho haunts they once knew. They don’t exactly fit in at The Haven, for Roddy Meakin is gay. When young he was caught cottaging and sent to prison (she a support when he got out), then fell on his feet: a job on a cruise ship brought a rich lover and an easy life. Amanda Goose had a tougher time, a schoolteacher raising a child on her own. He doesn’t have to worry about money; she’s three months in arrears with no means of paying.

There is some serious stuff behind Dusty Hughes’ new play: the shadow of dementia, the cost of care homes, attitudes to the elderly, loneliness and homophobia. Taken more realistically it’s a plot that could turn into tragedy but that stays in the background as Geoffrey Freshwater’s Roddy and Sara Kestelman’s Amanda win our affection with their Bohemian appraisal of the other residents.

Geoffrey Freshwater as Roddy Meakin

There is comedy too from Rebekah Hinds’ kindly nurse Sam with her tales of her eccentric granny. Claire Lams’ Kim, the Haven’s not-so-posh, on-the-way-up new manager who has to deal with Amanda’s situation, has to put company orders before compassion and she needs the job, her husband lost his.

To make its point the play, like Anna Reid’s sunny setting, presents a picture too good to be true. Its solutions are too easy: it’s a fantasy.

The reality is perhaps too painful but Kestelman gives a poignant portrait of someone who, in her own words, has lost a few of her marbles, and Freshwater makes Roddy’s effrontery (did he really drop his trousers in the dining room?) the carapace developed by a former victim. Paradise isn’t as superficial as it seems.

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